Spices of life
Spices and herbs add flavor to foods - you already know that. But did you know that some of your favorite seasonings also may contribute to improved health? For instance, fresh ginger not only helps reduce nausea - it may have anti-inflammatory properties and decrease symptoms of arthritis and bursitis. Historically, peppermint (fresh or dried) has been used as a digestive remedy, but peppermint also contains antioxidants that help fight the breakdown of cells.
- Cinnamon may help prevent diabetes - though you may have to ingest a full teaspoon every day for there to be any effect.
- Garlic may help prevent heart disease and also may lower cholesterol, especially if used in place of salt.
- Marjoram is believed to have antibacterial properties.
"Spices and herbs have a long history of multiple uses, and today, the phytochemical antioxidant properties of spices and herbs are being studied," says Mildred Mattfeldt-Beman, department chair and a professor in the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics at St. Louis University.
EARLY STUDIES ARE OPTIMISTIC
Before ringing endorsements will be forthcoming, many more studies are in order, Mattfeldt-Beman notes, and that those studies must be consistent. For instance, one study looked at the properties of whole garlic and one used garlic oil. "The information we do have begs for more studies - but already there is some evidence that spices and herbs may make us healthier."
Seeds, buds, berries, bark, the root or the fruit of tropical plants and trees are considered spices. Herbs, which may be used fresh or dried, are the leaves of low-growing shrubs. Bulbous plants, such as garlic, are used to flavor foods and are said to have medicinal properties. Hot peppers also have been used historically both as spices and for medicinal purposes.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has reported that herbs and spices may offer more antioxidant activity for each ounce than many fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants, in case you have forgotten why we all have upped our intake of blueberries, may help prevent or repair cell damage that could lead to heart disease, some cancers, Alzheimer's disease and other health problems. Spices and herbs store antioxidants in plant substances called phytonutrients.
Health benefits currently under investigation include:
- Cinnamon in insulin response
- Cayenne pepper in clearing sinuses and perhaps for anticancer activity
- Turmeric for protection against some cancers and Alzheimer's
- Rosemary as an anti-inflammatory
- Ginger to treat nausea or perhaps protect against colon cancer
- Garlic for heart health and as a cancer-fighter
For more information on research into the health benefits of spices and herbs, see www.nutritionandhealthconf.org.
"Turmeric is another spice that is being studied," Mattfeldt-Beman says. "Countries that have high intakes of curry have a lower incidence of Alzheimer's disease. That could be attributed to the air or water - but it could be the curry."
GOOD OLD GARLIC
Almost every culture uses garlic in the kitchen, and more than a few keep a supply in the medicine cabinet, as well. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a division of the National Institutes of Health, has conducted research on garlic. Here are some of the agency's conclusions:
- Some evidence indicates that taking garlic can slightly lower blood cholesterol levels.
- Preliminary research suggests that taking garlic may slow the development of atherosclerosis, which is a hardening of the arteries.
- Evidence is mixed on whether taking garlic can slightly lower blood pressure.
- Some studies suggest that consuming garlic as a regular part of the diet may lower the risk of certain cancers.
The agency notes that garlic appears to be safe for most adults, but also issues several caveats. For instance, side effects (especially from raw garlic) can include breath and body odor, heartburn, upset stomach and allergic reactions. Garlic also acts as a blood thinner similar to aspirin, which may cause a problem during or after surgery.
That's one reason why it's a good idea to speak with your doctor if you are taking herbal supplements of any sort, because some plant products may interfere with prescribed medication. And no spices or herbs - or even garlic - are meant to take the place of prescription medications.
Current research on spices and herbs seeks to document claims of medicinal benefits made by cultures much older than ours. "Originally, pharmacy was the study of herbs," Mattfeldt-Beman notes. "Germany and much of Europe have kept herb training, but it was eliminated from the curriculum in the United States, where we switched the focus to chemistry. Today, interest in herbs and spices is coming back."
That interest primarily is market driven - who among us is not concerned about the high cost of prescription drugs? "Some people say herbs are cheaper, more natural," Mattfeldt-Beman says. "Just remember that Socrates died drinking hemlock."
In other words, excessive dosages can be harmful. Also, herbs may be tainted with metals or pesticides, or cured using unsanitary methods.
Roberta L. Duyff, a registered dietitian in St. Louis, echoes Mattfeldt-Beman's concerns.
"We don't have definitive data regarding the medicinal properties of spices and herbs," she says. "We may learn some things from the early data we do have, but we need to be careful because we don't know whether these medicinal properties work for everyone or at what levels."
Duyff is the author of "American Dietetic Association Complete Food and Nutrition Guide" (Wiley, 688 pages, $50) and "365 Days of Healthy Eating from the American Dietetic Association" (Wiley, 272 pages, $14.95).
Herbs to be relished
The website of the Department of Integrative Medicine at the University of Michigan lists some seasonings believed to be beneficial. Those listed include:
Fresh ginger root
Ginger is said to have anti-inflammatory properties, to help reduce nausea and motion sickness and to decrease symptoms of arthritis and bursitis.
Fresh or dried peppermint
The leaves from the peppermint plant have been used as a digestive remedy for relief of heartburn, indigestion and nausea and may soothe the lower intestinal tract by decreasing spasms and gas formation. Peppermint also contains antioxidants that stimulate the production of bile and saliva.
This pungent spice is used to stimulate digestion, ease toothache pain, improve circulation, reduce blood clotting and decrease cholesterol. Cayenne also is said to help prevent arteriosclerosis and heart disease. On the site, Dr. Monica Myklebust and Jenna Wunder, a registered dietitian, also state that "whole foods are the best sources of vitamins, minerals and other plant compounds that help you stay healthy and fight disease," and they recommend whole foods over supplements. They also caution that "some spices and herbs may interact with medications," so they advise readers to notify their doctors about any use of spices and herbs while on medication.