19 April 2016 Herbs and Spices: A Win-Win Situation

Most people are aware of the impact that a diet high in sodium has on blood pressure and fluid retention. In fact, too much sodium can be a serious issue in people with heart, liver or kidney disease. Well, did you also know that a high sodium diet is associated with a higher incidence of stomach cancer? The American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) advises to limit consumption of salty foods and foods processed with sodium in order to lower the risk of stomach cancer. AICR advises that we consume less than 2,400 mg sodium daily. This expert advice is based on studies that show a high sodium intake can damage the stomach lining in addition to population studies showing a correlation of high sodium intake with stomach cancer.

So, does a healthy diet need to be bland and flavorless? No way! This is where herbs and spices come in. Not only can you add wonderful flavor to your foods while using less salt, but many herbs and spices may actually decrease cancer risk, too! As an RD nutritionist, this is a no-brainer if you are aiming for good health. Unlike considering the benefit-versus-risk of taking medication, there is no need to hesitate with herbs and spices. They are virtually risk-free and come with the potential promise of improved health.

For centuries, many cultures have been using herbs and spices to add flavor to foods and for enhancing health. Current scientific research is now beginning to show the benefits of herbs and spices with the majority of studies focusing on the prevention of cancer and heart disease. Scientists propose that herbs and spices may reduce cancer risk by altering the bacterial environment, changing cellular structure or blocking, slowing or stopping tumor growth.

More than 180 spice compounds have been explored for their health benefits. Here is a list of some of the more well-studied spices, including some practical tips for their use in cooking.

Turmeric is one of the most extensively studies spices. More than 1,700 lab studies have been published on this spice. It gets its yellow color from curcurmin, a phytochemical being investigated for its anticancer potential.

Tips for using turmeric:

  • add to rice
  • add a pinch to scrambled eggs or an egg dish
  • toss with roasted vegetables

Garlic, technically a vegetable, is often considered a spice because it is mainly used to flavor foods. Garlic is abundant in sulphur-containing compounds that are thought to be highly active in the body to protect against stomach and colorectal cancer. Some evidence shows that garlic can lower cholesterol, may slow the development of hardening of the arteries and may lower blood pressure.

Tips for using garlic:

  • peel off a few outer wrappers of the garlic, drizzle with olive oil, wrap in foil, and grill or slow roast for about 45 minutes
  • use extra garlic in recipes to further boost flavor
  • make a simple pasta sauce using sautéed garlic and basil in olive oil

Black pepper, probably the most important and popular spice in the world, contains a substance called piperine that gives it its strong flavor. Piperine acts as an anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant in cell studies. Researchers have found that the combination of curcumin and piperine may work better as active agents in inhibiting cancer cell growth. This is one example of how scientists are looking at the possible synergy of antioxidants in spices.

Tips for using black pepper:

  • add to salads, soups, stocks, sauces and marinades
  • rub onto meats, poultry or fish before roasting or cooking
  • add to mashed potatoes (and limit the salt)

Allspice was named by the English, who thought the herb contained flavors of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. It is a myth that allspice is a combination of spices, but rather it is derived from the dried, unripe berries of the Pimenta dioica tree. It contains at least five potential compounds that may contribute to health promotion.

Tips for using allspice:

  • add to your barbecue sauce for unique sweet flavor
  • use in spiced tea
  • add a dash to asparagus, carrots, squash, or beets

Cinnamon is a spice obtained from the bark of an evergreen tree. It has been studied for its antioxidant properties and is being investigated for improving blood glucose control in diabetes

Tips for using cinnamon:

  • sprinkle on hot or cold cereal or yogurt
  • sprinkle on a dish of fruit or baked apple, pear or squash

Proving the impact of herbs and spices on health is challenging. Medications can be studied as single compounds at a defined dose. Alternatively, food substances can vary in amount and type ingested, making it difficult to isolate the impact of a single substance on health. The good news is that herbs and spices add flavor and variety, and can easily be incorporated into dishes with the bonus of potential positive health benefits…minus the sodium. Some lab studies suggest that there may be a synergy of compounds in spices. It is probably best to consume a variety of herbs and spices in a plant-based diet. So, go ahead and spice up your foods for enjoyment and good health! It is a win-win.

Check out these sites for more ideas on using herbs and spices in cooking:

Herbs and Spices: How to Use Them Deliciously
The Ultimate Infographic Guide to Spices

Brenda Braslow, MS, RD, CDE

Brenda is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator in Denver,

Colorado who specializes in diabetes prevention and health enhancement.

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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.


Foods & Recipes/"Herbs, Spices, & Flavor" Nutrients/Antioxidants

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