How to enjoy the health benefits of spices

October 9, 2015

For thousands of years, spices have been used as flavourings, medicines, perfumes, dyes and even as weapons of war. They are the fruits, buds, roots or bark of plants. While they are rich in minerals, spices are used in minute amounts, so they provide little nutritional value. Here are some tips on getting the most out of your household spices.

How to enjoy the health benefits of spices

Storing spices

  • Spices lose their pungency on exposure to light, heat and air, so store them in a dark, dry cupboard and replace them annually.

Spices and their health benefits

Historically, spices have been used for almost every ailment, as well an an appetite stimulant. Although most specific health claims have not been borne out by studies, some popular traditional uses do seem to be grounded in fact.

  • Allspice gets its name from its flavour, which seems to blend the aromas of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. It is believed to aid digestion.
  • Black pepper is the fruit of a vine; it accounts for 25 percent of the world's spice trade. Sniffing ground pepper may help prevent fainting.
  • Caraway is related to carrots. Caraway seeds are popular for breads, cakes, cheese and vegetable dishes. Drinking an infusion may stimulate milk flow in nursing mothers. The limonene in caraway may reduce cancer risk.
  • Cardamom flavours coffee in Arab countries, sweet breads in Scandinavia and enhances the taste of cooked fruit. Cardamon may also relieve indigestion.
  • Cayenne and related spices are used to flavour the hot dishes of many countries. Capsaicin gives chili pappers their "bite" and is used as a topical painkiller. Chilli peppers are thought to stimulate the production of endorphins and cayenne may help reduce the discomfort from allergies, colds and flu.
  • Cinnamon comes from the dried bark of two Asian evergreens. It is a versatile flavouring that also relieves bloating and gas. Cinnamon may have antibacterial and antimicrobial properties and may also reduce discomfort from heartburn.
  • Coriander has been used for digestion forever. It is thought to be helpful in relieving stomach cramps and may kill bacteria and fungus. Coriander contains limonene, which is thought to help fight cancer.
  • Cumin goes with chilli, curries and hummus. It is being investigated for potential antioxidant and anticancer effects.
  • Ginger is a common motion nausea remedy. The ­gingerol, shogaol and zingiberene in ginger are anti­oxidants that may help prevent heart disease and cancer. As an anti-inflammatory, ginger may help against arthritis.
  • Juniper berries are used in pâtés and to give gin its flavour. In large doses, juniper acts as a diuretic that may also cause uterine contractions.
  • Mustard has been used in poultices and smelling salts since Roman times. Mustard seeds contain allyl isothiocyanates, which may inhibit cancer-cell growth.
  • Nutmeg and mace come from the same plant; nutmeg is the shelled seed, mace its hull. Eugenol, a monoterpene in nutmeg, is thought to help prevent heart disease by keeping blood from clotting. Nutmeg may also have antibacterial properties and may destroy E. coli.
  • Saffron, the most expensive of all spices, is obtained from the stamens of a specific crocus. It is used in vegetable soups, rice dishes, fish and sweet rolls. It is sometimes touted as an aphrodisiac.
  • Star anise gets its liquorice flavour from an oil containing anethole. Anethole-based flavourings have long been used in cough syrups and digestive preparations, as well as in ouzo, arak and anisette liquors. Star anise teas should not be given to children with colic. Doctors have reported a number of adverse reactions.
  • Turmeric is an essential ingredient of Indian curries and gives mustard its yellow colour. Turmeric is a natural antibiotic that Ayurvedic (Hindu traditional medicine) practitioners use to treat inflammation and digestive disorders.


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