Happy New Year! What better way to start off 2016 than with a little extra spice? Sure, spices taste good, but many also provide added health benefits beyond their distinct and delicious flavors. While nearly all spices provide some health benefits, there are four spices that I consider to be 'super spices', as they provide especially unique and/or powerful health components.
- Turmeric. Turmeric? What’s turmeric? Think: curry powder. Turmeric is what gives curry powder its distinct yellow color and somewhat tangy flavor. Turmeric is also found in mustard - yep, good 'ol yellow mustard! Several studies have shown that turmeric may help fight infections and some cancers, reduce inflammation, and aid with a variety of digestive issues (1). The responsible party for all of these incredible benefits is a compound called curcumin found in turmeric. Curcumin is a powerful antioxidant. Antioxidants scavenge free radicals in the body (free radicals can damage cell membranes, alter DNA, and even kill perfectly healthy cells). Antioxidants help eliminate free radicals and may reduce or even help prevent some of the damage they cause. As if curcumin's antioxidant power wasn't enough, it also helps to lower the levels of two enzymes in the body that can cause inflammation (aka it's an anti-inflammatory). Pass the curry, please!
- Cinnamon. Cinnamon is one of the most common, but under-appreciated spices. Cinnamon is rich in polyphenols, and research suggests that these compounds may act similarly to insulin in our body to help regulate blood sugar levels (2). Unfortunately though, cinnamon has been type-casted into being merely a 'pie spice'. Not any more, friends. Cinnamon has so much more potential than merely spicing up seasonal sugar-laden treats. Try sprinkling cinnamon over fresh fruit or roasted sweet potato fries. Or, mix cinnamon into yogurt, homemade chili, oatmeal, hot tea, coffee, and even smoothies (try making a pumpkin pie smoothie like this one - YUM). The more cinnamon-y, the better.
- Crushed red peppers. More than just a pizza seasoning, crushed red peppers may provide a multitude of health benefits. The health benefits of crushed red peppers (and other dried / fresh hot peppers) are due to a key component found in the peppers themselves called capsaicin. Capsaicin has both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and has even shown some promise for cancer treatment (3). Additionally, spicy foods may increase satiety (feelings of satisfaction following a meal or snack), helping you to feel fuller, sooner (4). Fun fact about spicy foods: 'spicy' is not actually a taste sensation. The five basic tastes include sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, and umami (savory). When you 'taste' something spicy, you are actually feeling a burning sensation from capsaicin. Capsaicin binds to a receptor on cells of the tongue, which detect temperature and send messages of pain. So, be brave, and feel free to add plentiful amounts of crushed red pepper to salads, roasted veggies, soups, and even deserts, like dark chocolate brownies or cakes (think those spicy dark chocolate bars)! Bring on the heat.
- Ginger. Potentially my favorite spice. Just one teaspoon of ginger, contains a similar antioxidant content to one cup of spinach. Yes, SPINACH. Another cool thing about ginger is that it is incredibly versatile. It can be easily added to savory foods, such as vegetables, soups, stir-fries, and dressings; however, it can just as easily be sprinkled over fresh fruit or stirred into yogurt or ice cream. Oh ginger, you multi-talented superstar. In addition to ginger's antioxidant power and serious versatility, ginger has been shown to aid in relieving and/or managing a variety of digestive issues (primarily nausea), along with a potential role in reducing / controlling pain (5). Ginger, you rock.
Although I have chosen four 'super' spices, all spices are wonderful in their own right in that they help nutritious foods taste better, thus allowing us to eat more of said nutritious foods (i.e., vegetables). If you think you don't like veggies, add spices! Trust me, the right seasonings can make even the most bitter and/or unpalatable vegetables delectable. So, get out there and add some seriously super spices to your life this year!