Throughout history, spices have played a major role in the establishment of trade routes, the launch of wars, and even the discovery of new foreign lands. (Remember Columbus was setting off to find a spice route to India when he hit North America instead.) Pepper, nutmeg, and cumin demanded high prices or were even used as currency themselves. Today, however, we can just walk down the aisle at the supermarket and pick up even the most exotic spices at bargain prices.
Over the centuries, spices also took on several supposed miracle properties; people thought certain spices were cures for the plague, aphrodisiacs, or the secret to a long life. And traders took the opportunity to raise prices for in-demand spices even more.
While some of these benefits were exaggerated, there is no doubt that eating spices can be beneficial. It’s easy to see the good spices can do for you every day. For picky eaters, spices offer an easy way to add flavor to healthy foods, especially vegetables, without using unhealthy salt, fat or sugar. Spices can also help you lose weight by making bland food more flavorful, and thus more filling.
Besides offering a treat for your taste buds and satisfying your hunger, spices help on a molecular level, similar to drugs. Many Eastern and alternative traditions already use spices in lieu of pharmaceutical medication, and science is showing that they may be onto something important.
Cinnamon, for instance, has been shown to have several valuable functions, including anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular properties. Eating cinnamon can also reduce cholesterol and help treat type II diabetes. Incorporate cinnamon into your diet by sprinkling it on cereal, stirring it into tea or coffee drinks, and adding it to desserts.
Another easy-to-use spice with multiple benefits, garlic has long been used in Chinese medicine. Scientific studies indicate that garlic may lower blood pressure, reduce the effects of cardiovascular disease, and maybe even boost the immune system. Garlic also has anti-microbial properties which are currently being studied as a treatment for drug-resistant tuberculosis. Incorporate garlic into your diet by sautéing crushed or minced garlic in oil and adding to pasta, stir-fries, or vegetables. (Use parsley in the dish or pair the meal with a glass of milk to reduce garlic-breath!)
One spice that’s probably less common in American kitchens is turmeric, often used in Indian and Eastern cooking. The active ingredient in turmeric, curcumin, has shown promise as a protective agent against neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s. Curcumin may also protect against cancer and the damage caused by radiation. Incorporate turmeric into your diet by adding it to the water you use to cook rice, and stirring it into sauces, dips, and dressings.
Beware, because some spices (just like some foods) can have a negative effect on your system. For instance, ginseng can raise your blood pressure. In addition, while some spices like red pepper do have health benefits, they may also cause indigestion, heartburn, acid reflux, and ulcers.