Are there health benefits to spices?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

I’ve read about the health benefits of spices that most of us have in our kitchen cabinets. Is there anything to this?

DEAR READER:

I’ll bet you’ve been seasoning your food for years, using herbs and spices to add freshness and depth to your dishes. Researchers have begun to investigate the effects of these flavor enhancers on health. It turns out that herbs and spices may do much more than make your food more inviting.

Spices and herbs contain concentrated amounts of phytochemicals, plant chemicals that help combat disease. These nutrients are antimicrobial, which means they protect the body from bacteria and food-borne illnesses. Below are some of the latest research findings:

  • When meats such as beef, pork or chicken are exposed to high heat from grilling or frying, carcinogens called HCAs form. Adding rosemary to ground beef may help prevent the formation of HCAs.
  • There are many studies of cinnamon, but they unfortunately come to different conclusions. Some find that cinnamon lowers levels of blood sugar and cholesterol, but others do not. I think the jury is still out on cinnamon. (When it comes in with a verdict, I’ll let you know.)
  • A small but well-designed study looked at the effect of saffron on menstrual symptoms. It found that 75 percent of women with menstrual symptoms who took 30 milligrams of saffron daily reported that mood swings and depression declined by at least half, compared with only 8 percent of women who didn’t take saffron.

Dried herbs keep their antioxidant and phytochemical content during the drying process. So whether you buy dried or fresh herbs is a matter of personal preference.

Try substituting herbs and spices for salt, added sugar or fats. This can be a healthy way to reduce excess calories without sacrificing flavor.

Here are some commonly used herbs and spices, along with health benefits that some research has attributed to them:

  • CINNAMON. Helps kill any bacteria that may have gotten into food; and as said earlier, may lower blood sugar, triglycerides and cholesterol levels.
  • TURMERIC. May inhibit tumor growth in colon, breast, prostate cancers; aids digestion; relieves arthritis inflammation.
  • ROSEMARY. Reduces carcinogens that form on meat when grilled or fried; may reduce cancer growth; may increase ability to concentrate.
  • GARLIC. May disrupt cancer cell metabolism; associated with decreased risk of stomach and colon cancers; modestly reduces blood pressure.
  • PAPRIKA/CHILI PEPPERS. Reduces gas; increases immunity; decreases cancer cell survival.
  • OREGANO. Highest antioxidant-containing herb; decreases brain inflammation.
  • CLOVES. May kill cancer cells; antioxidant; numbing agent.

It is possible that these spices may have such direct health benefits. However, the healthiest reason to use spices is to make nutritious foods taste even better.