The Healthiest Spices

"There's a lot of evidence that spices aren't just tasty; they can help you stay healthy," says Dr. Bharat B. Aggarwal, professor of cancer research at the University of Texas in Houston. So much, in fact, that the renowned UCLA Center for Human Nutrition recommends using spices "whenever possible." How do seasonings work their magic? Like fruits and vegetables, spices are rich in antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antibacterial compounds, but are more concentrated in small amounts. The upshot: Used regularly, culinary herbs can help reduce inflammation, fight free radicals, aid digestion and circulation, lower blood sugar, and boost immunity.

"If you really want to have an impact on your family's health, learn how to enhance the flavor of your food with culinary seasonings," says Dr. Tieraona Low Dog, a well-known herbalist and the director of education at the University of Arizona's Program in Integrative Medicine. Here is a sampling of spices to use regularly:

Often served in Indian restaurants at the end of a meal, fennel is a well-known digestive aid. "It's my favorite for gas and indigestion," says Low Dog. The bulbous herb is also a strong antioxidant. Anethole, the primary component of the plant's volatile oil, has been shown to reduce inflammation and help prevent cancer.

Try It: "Simply roasting the bulb is superb," says Simonds. It's also great braised with meat or munched on raw. You can also simply chew on the seeds, or try this Vegetable Market Salad recipe.

For more than 5,000 years, people have depended on garlic for fighting illness, with good reason. Known in herbal lore as the "poor man's penicillin," it contains many antimicrobial compounds. Like leeks, onions, and other Allium vegetables, garlic shows promise for protecting against gastrointestinal and colorectal cancer. As for its reputation as a heart helper, studies are mixed, but one recent Tufts University study on aged garlic extract suggests that it may indeed help prevent cardiovascular disease.

Try It: Spread roasted garlic on crusty bread, sautee it and add to sauces, and use raw in hummus and salad dressing. Or try these three great garlic recipes.

With its slightly minty flavor and immune-enhancing properties, thyme is a frequent ingredient in Low Dog's soups and marinades, "especially during cold and flu season." Preliminary studies show that it may increase the amount of omega-3 fatty acids present in kidney and brain cells. Like other spices, thyme is an excellent antioxidant and is rich in antibacterial and antispasmodic properties.

Try It: Use thyme to flavor stews and soups. It works well in Caribbean dishes like jerk chicken and in Creole dishes such as blackened fish. Also try this Arugula and Red-Leaf Salad with Strawberries recipe, and add thyme to the salad dressing.

A renowned anti-inflammatory and circulation booster, ginger is a year-round power spice. "When you're cold, it warms you to the bone," says Low Dog. "But when it's hot, it cools you." Ginger is also high in potassium and has a particular affinity for the tummy: Studies show it contains essential oils and compounds that help settle an upset stomach. But don't exceed 10 grams fresh ginger per day (or 2 to 4 grams dried), cautions Low Dog. Higher doses can cause gastric upset and may interact with blood-clotting medicine.

Try It: Peel first, and then add freshly grated ginger to stir-fries, carrot soup, fish and chicken marinades, and sesame noodle salad. Or try this Apple, Date and Ginger Crisp recipe.

Cinnamon does more than add a festive touch to your morning latte: Traditional Chinese Medicine considers it a "warming remedy"; it's a good source of manganese, iron, and calcium; and Low Dog says it works wonders for that "after-eating bloated feeling." Recent studies have shown that as little as a teaspoon of cinnamon daily can help lower blood sugar, exciting some diabetes experts. It may also help reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

Try It: Sprinkle cinnamon on sweet potatoes, hot cereal, yogurt, and grilled fruit. Use traditional Chinese five-spice powder (which includes cinnamon, along with fennel, cloves, peppercorns, and star anise) in chicken recipes. Also try this recipe for Cinnamon-Spiced Chicken.

Rich in rosmarinic acid, a powerful antioxidant, rosemary leaves have been shown to increase blood flow to the brain, giving credence to the herb's reputation as a memory tonic. (In ancient Greece, students used to put rosemary in their hair when studying.) Native to the Mediterranean but thriving in any warm climate, the herb contains anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting compounds and is a good source of iron, calcium, and potassium.

Try It: Rosemary pairs well with garlicky potatoes, meat and fish dishes, and frittatas. Fresh or dried work equally, but if you use fresh, chop or crush it to bring out the flavor. Try this Rosemary-Infused Dipping Oil.

Cayenne Pepper
An excellent source of the antioxidant vitamin A, beta-carotene, and lutein, this spice turns up the heat -- and not just on your tongue. Capsaicin, the active ingredient in cayenne pepper, boosts circulation, fights infections, and aids digestion. "Chili peppers have even been found to help people boost metabolism and lose weight," says David Heber, M.D., director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition. It also has pain-relieving properties: Capsaicin "kills the neurons that cause pain," notes Aggarwal. Like any hot pepper, however, a little goes a long way.

Try It: Add a pinch of powdered cayenne to paella, Thai and Mexican dishes, or any dish that needs a kick. Also try these Spiced Walnuts.

Known for its distinctive tang, cilantro is common in both Mexican and Asian cuisines. And experts say this spice, among the world's oldest, provides powerful health benefits. "It revitalizes the body," says Simonds. Cilantro helps counter indigestion, and some research suggests it may help remove toxic metals such as mercury from the body. Its sweet-tasting cousin, coriander (the seed of the same plant), also confers general health benefits.

Try It: Add fresh cilantro to salsa, guacamole, fish or chicken marinades, and Indian and Chinese soups. Check out this Miso Salmon with Cilantro Salsa recipe.

With its cool, fresh flavor and lively aroma, peppermint is perhaps best known as a stomach soother, thanks to its high concentration of menthol, which relaxes smooth muscles. It's also rich in nutrients like beta-carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin C. But like ginger, says Low Dog, peppermint can worsen heartburn -- so be careful if you're prone.

Try It: Use fresh mint in gazpacho, salads, or sorbet. "I also like to put peppermint tea in ice cube trays," says Low Dog. Add these ice cubes to water for a refreshing drink. Also try this Licorice Mint Iced Tea.

A fragrant hallmark of Italian cooking, basil has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties and contains a wealth of nutrients, including beta-carotene and magnesium. "Basil is pretty amazing," confirms Low Dog. Besides adding it to your diet, consider picking up some basil essential oil, which Low Dog calls an "antimicrobial wonder." Combine 1 percent basil essential oil and 99 percent water for a produce wash, or apply a few drops to minor cuts and scrapes.

Try It: In chicken dishes, pastas, pesto, and tomato-and-cheese sandwiches. Check out this Basil Vingaigrette recipe.

Want to build your body's defenses? Then eat turmeric -- or curry powder, which features turmeric -- often. Curcumin, the plant chemical responsible for the spice's beautiful yellow color, is a "very potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agent," says Aggarwal. Several studies have shown that turmeric activates cellular defense mechanisms in genes. And while high doses show promise for adjunct cancer treatment, some scientists theorize that the low incidence of certain cancers in India may be due, in part, to the prominence of turmeric in Indian cuisine. "I predict over the next few years we'll find out even more interesting stuff about turmeric," says Low Dog.

Try It: Add to curry dishes, to egg or chicken salad, or savory lentil or rice recipes.
Or try this Turmeric Couscous recipe.

Text by Sharon M. Goldman; photography by Yunhee Kim

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