Want Better Health? Turn to Your Spice Rack

Ginger, garlic and other spices not only add flavor to food, but can ease inflammation, lower cholesterol and improve digestion.
In cultures around the globe, tree bark, shrubs, seeds and bulbs have been used as food enhancers for centuries. Sound unappetizing? You’ve used them too, as cinnamon (made from tree bark), rosemary (shrub), mustard (seed) and garlic (bulb).

These plants and their products not only heighten flavor, but also play a significant role in our overall health. In fact, 80% of all people use plants as medicine to treat everything from digestive distress and fever to muscle pain and asthma, according to the World Health Organization.

In the U.S., we do the same, but less directly. Ever taken an aspirin? To relieve pain, the famed Greek doctor Hippocrates prescribed willow-tree bark and leaves because of their active ingredient salicin, a chemical precursor to aspirin.

These days, we only have to look as far as the kitchen to find herbs and spices containing antioxidants and other phytochemicals to boost our health.

Spice source: Often called Indian saffron, this spice is known for its golden-yellow color. It’s often found in curry powder and many types of mustards.

The shrub that produces turmeric is part of the ginger family and grows widely in India and other parts of Asia.

Reason to season: Instead of popping an ibuprofen (Advil) next time you have joint pain, sprinkle powdered turmeric into your stew or soup.

Its active ingredient is curcumin, which provides the spice’s yellow color and may help decrease symptoms of arthritis, tendonitis and other inflammatory conditions.

“Some studies show that the anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric are just as good as conventional NSAIDs [nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Advil], without the side effects of gastric distress,” says Elina Kaminsky, R.Ph., C.N.C., a pharmacist and nutrition consultant at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.

Daily dose: 1/2 teaspoon may be enough to alleviate some joint inflammation, says Reardon.

Kitchen tip: Turmeric has a musky, ginger-like taste. It’s delicious when paired with savory dishes such as lentils, steamed vegetables and scrambled eggs. Try it in this Moroccan Vegetable Soup.

Spice source: The tough, bumpy underground stem of the ginger plant has been used for its flavor, scent and therapeutic properties in Asian cultures for centuries.

Reason to season: Dried or fresh, ginger is a powerful remedy for stomach ailments.

“It can [prevent] nausea and gastrointestinal upset resulting from pregnancy, chemotherapy and motion sickness,” Reardon says.

Also, some studies suggest ginger can relieve inflammation and reduce joint and muscle pain from rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Daily dose: 1/4-inch slice fresh ginger; 1/3 teaspoon powdered. On store shelves, you’ll also find it candied and pickled, but fresh ginger is best, says Reardon.

Kitchen tip: The juicy root has a tingly, pungent sweetness that adds a peppery warmth to fruits, rice, meats such as poultry or ham, marinades and chutneys, and salads.

For a soothing tea, slice or grate fresh ginger and add to boiling water sweetened with honey. (Store in the fridge.)

Try it in this Edamame-Ginger Dip.

Spice source: Often called the stinking rose, garlic is an edible bulb from the lily family.

Reason to season: Chopping or crushing raw garlic releases its active medicinal component, allicin, which can help lower cholesterol and blood pressure and slow development of atherosclerosis (artery hardening).

“Garlic can also act as a mild blood thinner and prevent blood clots,” Reardon says.

Consuming garlic might also decrease the risk of stomach and colorectal cancers by inhibiting tumor growth, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Daily dose: One raw clove. Although high heat may destroy some of garlic’s medicinally active compounds, cooked garlic still confers health benefits, says Kaminsky.

Kitchen tip: Chop a few fresh cloves and add to extra virgin olive oil, then drizzle over greens, salads and pasta dishes. In the refrigerator, this seasoned oil remains fresh for about a week.

Or use whole, cooked cloves to season meats, potatoes and rice dishes.

Try it in this Lemon-Garlic Marinated Shrimp.

Cayenne Pepper
Spice source: This fiery powder comes from dried, ground red chili peppers.

Reason to season: Cayenne’s active ingredient is capsaicin, the compound that gives peppers heat and pharmaceutical potential.

Cayenne powder is used to stimulate digestion and protect the heart, says Kaminsky.

“It’s also used to treat colds and congestion, and as a carminative [flatulence reducer].”

Daily dose: 1/4 teaspoon daily, says Reardon.

Kitchen tip: Try cayenne instead of black pepper with veggies, salads, soups and stews. Add a fiery zing to fruit by sprinkling a pinch (a little goes a long way) on fresh mangos, papayas, cantaloupe and coconuts. Try it in this Southwest Black Bean Soup.

For an even higher dose of capsaicin, use chopped chili peppers, such as jalapeno, in chili and other bean dishes, soups, salsas and chutneys. Try it in this Roasted Chicken Tenders with Peppers and Onions.

Spice source: This aromatic, sweet spice is made from the brown bark of the cinnamon tree.

Reason to season: A spoonful of spice may help the sugar go down. Cinnamon consumption can reduce glucose, triglyceride and LDL “bad” cholesterol levels in people with type 2 diabetes, according to a 2003 Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center study.

If you’re not diabetic, “during cold and flu season, drink hot milk with honey and cinnamon to warm you up,” Kaminsky suggests.

Daily dose: 1/2-1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon is all you need, says Reardon.

Kitchen tip: Available on store shelves as a ground powder or dried, tubular stick, cinnamon enhances the flavor of sweet potatoes, sugar-topped buttered toast, soy milk, oatmeal, baked apples and many desserts. Grating cinnamon stick into your coffee or tea adds a fragrant sweetness.

Try it in this Spiced Corn & Rice Pilaf.

Seasoning secrets
How you store and cook spices affects their efficacy. Here are some tips:

Store spices and herbs in a cool, dry place (out of direct sunlight).

Remove seeds from peppers to turn down their heat.

Add ground spices near the end of cooking time, since they release their flavor immediately.

Whole spices should be added at the beginning of cooking so their full flavor can be extracted.

Crumbling whole herbs just before use releases their flavor.

Chop or smash garlic cloves to release allicin, the active health-promoting ingredient.