“Variety is the spice of life,” especially when we think in terms of nutrition. Before refrigeration, spices were used to mask food that didn’t smell or taste all that great. Through the regular use of spices, people soon realized that spices were far more than a plant-based preservative that had the ability to increase the flavor in meals—it also had medicinal uses, too. Spices have various health-boosting effects because they comprise powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds.
By cooking with spices, you will enhance the flavor in your meals in a healthy way. Spices also serve as a healthful substitute for sugar, salt, and fat. As a rule of thumb, choose organic spices because they don’t contain pesticides, artificial colors, and preservatives. To learn more about the following must-have spices and other wholesome foods like fruits, vegetables, probiotics, and whole grains, read my new book, The Gene Therapy Plan, which was published by Viking on April 21 and is available online or in stores.
Cinnamon is a spice with powerful anti-inflammatory properties. It comes from the bark of trees that are indigenous to Southeast Asia, India, and China. Historically, it has been used to treat various ailments like gastrointestinal problems. Cinnamon also helps to lower blood sugar levels in those with diabetes and reduces unhealthy fats like triglycerides and LDLs. It is loaded with nutrients like iron, calcium, and fiber, and its spicy yet sweet flavor makes a wonderful topping on oatmeal. You can also sprinkle some ground cinnamon or soak a cinnamon stick in tea.
Ginger is the most familiar type of rhizome—gnarled, knobby stems that lie underground and are packed with pungent flavor. The spice has both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and has been a staple in Asian medicine. It’s been used for the treatment of nausea and arthritic pain. Although ginger can be found in either its root or powdered form, use fresh ginger whenever possible because it packs a fresher, zestful flavor. Use ginger in meat, vegetable, and rice dishes. You can also remove its outer skin, slice it, and boil it for 10 minutes to make a cup of tea.
Turmeric is a shrub that is closely related to ginger and grows throughout India, Asia, and Africa. This spice is responsible for the brilliant yellow color seen in Indian curry dishes and American mustard. Turmeric has a warm, spicy, aromatic flavor and is a powerful anti-inflammatory compound. Curcumin is a bioactive substance found in turmeric that has anticancer effects. Studies show that curcumin selectively attacks tumor cells in myriad ways. Be careful when handling turmeric because it can stain your hands and clothes. While you can use it to make a curry paste, you can also use it to season a variety of dishes like juices or smoothies. Add it to a steeping cup of hot water and sip on flavorful turmeric tea.
While rosemary is actually an herbaceous plant, it’s an essential ingredient when it comes to healthful meals. A fragrant herb with needle-like leaves, rosemary is packed with nutrients like vitamin B6, iron, and calcium. It’s also touted for its anti-inflammatory properties. Rosemary also blocks enzymes that promote insulin resistance, supports carbohydrate metabolism, and enhances the sensitivity of leptin (satiety hormone). Season your food with rosemary, and combine it with citrus fruits to punch up the flavor. For a refreshing spin on beverages like water or smoothies, add a few sprigs of fresh rosemary.
Saffron is an earthy, aromatic spice that comes from the Crocus sativus flower, which is aptly named for a potent anti-inflammatory agent called crocin. Because crocin blocks inflammatory mediators, it helps to protect against tissue damage in blood vessels that allow unhealthy cholesterol plaques to form and cause heart disease. Saffron tends to be pricier because it’s harvested by hand—225,000 stigmas from the flower make only one pound of saffron! Thankfully, you just need a few threads to cook with. When buying saffron threads, make sure the thread is red and the tips are orange (some manufactures dye the thread, which you want to avoid). Before you use saffron threads to season meat or make sauces, you also want to steep them in hot water, which helps to release its flavor and allow the color to disperse evenly through food. Alternatively, you can use the powdered form.
Cloves come from the tropical evergreen tree. The spice is the unopened flower bud of the tree, and it packs a complex, unique flavor that is sweet, peppery, and spicy—all infused into one nail-shaped bud. That’s one gutsy spice! Cloves contain anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, analgesic, and antioxidant effects. A compound in cloves called eugenol has been found to block inflammatory mediators. The spice is also loaded with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fats. While whole and ground cloves are available, buy whole cloves, which last longer, and grind them with a mortar and pestle to ensure that its flavor and freshness is optimal.
Capsicum is a group of small-fruited, annual plants of which cayenne pepper is a member. Capsaicin is the chemical that gives cayenne its hot flavor. Cayenne is an anti-inflammatory spice that also has antioxidant effects due to beta-carotene, which also gives the pepper its bright red color. It’s also a great source of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Add cayenne pepper to your meals. They come in either fresh or dried varieties. If you opt to use fresh cayenne, you can bring down the heat by removing the seeds, just be sure to wear gloves because it can irritate your skin. Cayenne is truly a versatile spice that you can use in many dishes; be sure to add just enough for a bit of a kick.