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The Secret World of Spices


Food Product Design

The Secret World of Spices

August 1999 -- Cover Story

By: Ronald C. Deis, Ph.D.
Contributing Editor

  Spices do much more than impart flavor. In fact, a "secret" spice world has flourished for centuries, and is still cultivated by many cultures and modern-day herbalists. Spices and herbs have also been used for centuries as preservatives, colorants and medicinal remedies.

  China, India, Greece, Rome and Egypt have a rich history in the medicinal use of spices and herbs. Since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, spices have been used to combat snakebites, poor eyesight, stomach disorders, sleeping problems, poor circulation, sores, colds, muscular aches, gout, lumbago, poor digestion, motion sickness and hangovers. The apothecary industry in Europe emerged from the practice of blending spices and herbs to cure specific ills. In Middle-Age Europe, pomanders containing spice blends were popular as air purifiers, and were worn about the neck or hung in a room. Today, we might consider this potpourri.

  Spices have played an even larger role in history, however. The search for new and lower-cost spices resulted in the discovery of new lands and trade routes. Exploration needed a bottom line, and since spices were highly valued, any exploration that led to a new source or new spice filled the bill.

What is a spice?
  According to the American Spice Trade Association (ASTA), Englewood Cliffs, NJ, ( the proper definition of spices, as opposed to herbs or botanicals, is "any dried plant product used primarily for seasoning purposes." This definition includes a wide range of plants - tropical aromatics, leafy herbs, spice seeds, roots, dehydrated vegetables and spice blends.

  In the past, the leaves and seeds of temperate-zone plants were known as herbs, while the term spice denoted tropical aromatics only. Over time, this classification shifted, so that in general, the term spice now covers a whole range of elements - spices, herbs, blends and dehydrated vegetables. The FDA's definition of spices, however, does not include dehydrated vegetables, so these require separate labeling in a product, as do any color-contributing spices such as paprika, turmeric or saffron. The USDA has much the same rules as the FDA, but also requires that onion and garlic be listed as "flavors."

  Prior to the early 1800s, spices were available in whole form only, and it was up to the user to grind them. Today, we have whole spices, ground spices, seasoning blends, which may be a combination of several spices and several forms, and spice extractives. Spice extractives include essential oils (volatile aromatic fractions); oleoresins (derived by solvent extraction of the whole spice, including volatile and non-volatile fractions); liquid solubles (oleoresins plus solubilizing agents to create a liquid seasoning); dry solubles (oleoresins plated on a dry carrier); encapsulated spices; standardized oleoresins; and WONFs (essential oils plus other natural flavoring materials).

Battling microbes
  Even in Middle-Age Europe, it was well-known that spices provide important preservation qualities. Salting, smoking, or pickling were also used to inhibit spoilage, but spices were preferred, which was the reason for their considerable worth.

  The most effective antimicrobial spices include garlic, onion, cinnamon, cloves, thyme and sage. Cloves, which have a high essential oil content, contain eugenol, a phenylpropanoid also present in sage and cinnamon. Allicin, present in garlic, also acts as an antimicrobial agent, as does the allyl isothiocyanate present in mustard. Thymol, present in thyme, oregano and sage, is also noted for its antimicrobial properties.

  Research at Kansas State University, Manhattan, has shown that cloves have a high antimicrobial effect against Escherichia coli 0157:H7 in ground meat. Cinnamon, garlic, oregano and sage were also shown to be effective - adding 7.5% garlic and clove killed 99% of the pathogen. This percentage is a little high for palatability, but further research could lead to extractives that are effective against specific bacteria.

  The best summary of what is known to date on the effectiveness of spices as antimicrobials is found in this list, adapted from L. Zaika in the Journal of Food Safety, 1988:

  • Microorganisms differ in their resistance to a given spice or herb.
  • A given microorganism differs in its resistance to various spices and herbs.
  • Bacteria are more resistant than fungi.
  • The effect on spores may be different than on vegetative cells.
  • Gram-negative bacteria are more resistant than gram-positive bacteria.
  • The effect may be inhibitory or germicidal (generally inhibitory).
  • HAACP is still important - spices and herbs may harbor contaminants or serve as substrate for growth.
  • Amounts of spices and herbs added to foods are generally too low to prevent spoilage.
  • Nutrients present in spices and herbs may actually stimulate microbial growth.
  • Active components may interact synergistically with other factors to increase preservative effect.
  The final item refers to an effect that has been recognized for some time and is often termed the "hurdle theory." Microorganisms can be controlled through a combination of factors, including water activity, acidity, atmosphere (aerobic/anaerobic), temperature and chemical composition. For best antimicrobial results, adjustment should be made to as many of these factors as possible, throwing a number of "hurdles" in the way of microbial growth. If a number of factors can be combined so that the preservative effects of each can be realized without impacting the sensory attributes of the food product, the project is a success. If the preservative also brings along a desirable color or antioxidant effect, so much the better.

Antioxidant activity
  Spices can also extend shelf life by slowing oxidation. In foods, lipid oxidation, protein oxidation, and enzymatic oxidation cause shelf-life problems. Rancidity development is an oxidative process that can be blocked by antioxidants, which block formation of free radicals by donating electrons or hydrogen ions to halt the oxidative process. While phenolic compounds such as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), or tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) are all very effective, economical ingredients, they are not appropriate for a natural product. On the other hand, commercial rosemary products might be a better fit. Active compounds in this herb are diphenolic diterpenes, which are highly effective antioxidants. The main constituents include: carnosol, carnosoic acid and its esters, and lesser amounts of rosmanol, rosmaridiphenol and rosmarinic acid. Sage and thyme also contain natural antioxidative compounds.

  The positive effects of antioxidants aren't just limited to food preservation. In the body, free radicals are initiated by a number of processes - heat, UV light, radiation, alcohol and tobacco, for example. Free-radical damage to cells can limit the ability of cells to fight cancer or to limit aging. At the University of Kentucky, researchers found that Vitamin E, a strong antioxidant, can limit the death of brain cells exposed to a free-radical-stimulating protein in the brains of Alzheimer's patients. Also, tests conducted by the USDA Tufts University in Boston, and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore have demonstrated a link between heart disease and lipid oxidation. Spices might also provide some of the same effects.

Compound Chemistry

  What are some of the chemical constituents responsible for the healing and preservative properties of spices and herbs? Several classes of compounds stand out, and have collectively been given the name "phytochemicals." These are generally secondary metabolites produced by a plant as an attractant for insects or as a defense against microbial or animal attack. In our diet, these compounds can, taken in moderation with proper exercise and reduction of stress, act as one step toward improving the quality of life.

Sulfur Compounds:
  Sulfides and thioles play a prominent role in the preservative features of the onion family, Alliaceae.

Terpenes and Terpene Derivatives:
  Terpenes are divided into classes of molecular weight - monoterpenes have 10 carbon atoms; sesquiterpenes, 15; diterpenes, 20; and triterpenes, 30. Monoterpenes are the most common, and spices are differentiated by their specific mixture of these. Monoterpenes play a large role in the mint and parsley families. Common to this class are limonene, pinene, camphene, myrcene, dipentene, terpinene. The sesqui-, di-, and tri- terpenes are less common, and are usually found specific to certain families. Sesquiterpenes are important to the characteristics of cinnamon and the Zingiberaceae family (ginger, turmeric, galangal). Common to this class are farnesol and chamazulene. Di- and triterpenes are very bitter, and are responsible for some of the bitterness of the mint family. Carotenoids are terpene derivatives, as is thymol, a preservative compound of thyme.

  Phenols figure prominently in a number of products - eugenol in cloves, safrol in nutmeg, vanillin in vanilla beans, and cinnamic acid in cinnamon, for example. Others include thymol, anethole and myristicin.

  Glycosides are made up of two distinct parts - a sugar molecule, and a non-sugar part called an aglycon. The glycoside itself is usually non-volatile, but the aglycon is easily cleaved, and can be volatile. The best example of this type of compound is mustard-oil glycosides, which release an isothiocyanate that causes tears and burning, as from horseradish.

  The aldehyde groups includes citral, cinnamic aldehyde, benzaldehyde and citronellal.

  Esters are found in most essential oils, and include eugenyl acetate, bornyl acetate and linalyl acetate.

  Alcohols have notable antimicrobial and antiviral properties, and include farnesol, citronellol, linalool, methol, terpinol and benzyl alcohol.

  A series of papers presented by Wang, et. al., of the food science department at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, shows that a number of spices, most notably basil, rosemary and sage, are very active anti-tumorigenic agents. Another paper by Wang, et. al. discusses the antioxidant, antiviral, antibacterial, and antimicrobial activity of Dalmatian sage, Salvia officinalis. Of 25 compounds isolated from sage by alcohol extraction, four were found to be very active. Flavonoid compounds were also evaluated in ethyl extracts from rosemary; six compounds were identified. Evidence suggests that the presence of flavonoids and di- and triterpenes is responsible for the antioxidant properties of rosemary.

Color combinations
  Spices also improve the appearance of a food. For example, at 4% to 16% carotenoids, chili peppers provide a range of red to green colors.

  Paprika, turmeric and their oleoresins, as well as saffron, are approved in the United States as color additives in 21 CFR section 73, and may be used with no restrictions.

  Saffron, produced from the stigma of Crocus sativas, a member of the iris family, has a very intense water-soluble, yellow-orange color. This color is caused by carotenoids, particularly crocetin and crocin, as well as P- and L-carotene, lycopene and zeazanthin. Saffron may be unique in its color and fragrance, but it is also the most expensive spice in the world, at a cost of over $300 per lb. Saffron is permitted as a natural color in the United States, but economics limits its use. Safflower, Carthamus tinctorius, is a frequent saffron substitute overseas, but is not permitted in this country. This member of the sunflower family owes its orange-red color to the flavanoid carthamin. Safflower oil, even better known as an ingredient, is a highly unsaturated oil with high vitamin E content.

  Turmeric, Curcuma longa, a member of the ginger family, is also a very effective natural colorant. The name Curcuma is actually derived from the Persian word "kirkum," meaning saffron. When the roots of this plant are dried and ground, the powder produced is yellow with an orange tinge. The powder is often blended with paprika and annatto to produce the desired color. Its largest use is in prepared mustard, but it is also widely used in curry powder, pickles, relish, sausage and cheese. The extractable color in turmeric comes from curcumin, which is also a natural antioxidant.

  Paprika provides a brilliant red powder derived from carotenoids - capsanthrine, capsorubin, beta-carotene and others. Paprika is produced from the pods of Capsicum annum, a mild bell pepper. Formulators usually prefer to use paprika oleoresin due to its better light stability. Product applications include blends for curry powder, cereals, sauces and baked goods.

  Cinnamon can also provide a range of colors, depending on the type chosen. Cassia-type cinnamons, native to China and Indonesia, have a range of essential oil contents (cinnamic aldehyde), and provide a selection of aromas, flavors and color intensities. Ceylon-type cinnamon is very low in essential oils, and so is weak in color, flavor and aroma.

The onion family
  Onions, Allium cepa, are among the top three ingredients used in recipes worldwide. (The other two are salt and pepper.) In the United States, each person consumes approximately 16 lbs. of onions per year. Fresh onions contain only about 0.01% essential oil, made up of a range of sulfide compounds. The trademark "crying effect" experienced when cutting onions is caused by thiopropanal-S-oxide and propenyl sulfenic acid. When onion is dried, its flavor and odor become more garlic-like.

  One of the best-selling herbal remedies in the United States is a member of the onion family, Alliaciae, but it's not onion. Garlic has been used as an herbal treatment for centuries. The Greeks, Romans and Egyptians believed that it increased strength and speed, and they also used it to treat wounds, infections, tumors and parasites. Garlic's numerous purported cardiovascular, antimicrobial, antioxidative, antitumor, and cholesterol-lowering properties - which the ancients knew through practical use - are now being reinforced by modern studies. Add to that its flavor and aroma in Italian, Indian and other ethnic dishes, not to mention its effect on vampires, and garlic's popularity is easily understood. In fact, production of garlic has increased from 140 million lbs. in 1975 to greater than 500 million lbs. today.

  The active compounds in garlic are found throughout the onion family, which also includes chives. When garlic cells are damaged, alliin, an odorless amino acid, is converted by allinase to allicin, which is responsible for the characteristic odor and flavor of garlic. Allicin itself is relatively unstable, and is converted over time to ajoenes, dithiins and diallyl disulfide, all of which have been shown to possess antimicrobial, anticlotting and antioxidant activity. Garlic also contains vitamins B and C, selenium and sulfur.

  According to German clinical trials using a standardized tablet marketed under the name of Kwai, garlic users who consume 600 to 900 mg per day can lower serum cholesterol an average of 12%. Meanwhile, researchers at The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, have reported that heating can destroy garlic's anti-cancer activity. As little as one minute in the microwave or 40 minutes of oven roasting can destroy the allinase responsible for the breakdown of alliin. However, if the garlic is crushed and allowed to stand for 10 minutes, the garlic retains anti-cancer activity (as determined in rat studies). These researchers also identified three water-soluble, sulfur-containing constituents - S-allyl cysteine, S-ethyl cysteine and S-propyl cysteine - that decrease cholesterol production by 40% to 60% in rat liver cells.

  One last word on garlic - researchers at Clemson University in Charleston, SC have reported that feeding 3% dietary garlic powder to chickens reduces odor in poultry houses. (The offensive odor normally produced gives a new punch line to the old "why did the chicken cross the road?" joke. Answer - to get upwind of the other chickens.) According to researchers, the house now smells "like a pizzeria." It is also possible that the garlic powder could lower the cholesterol content of the chickens' eggs. In a follow-up study, hogs were a little more finicky about their food, but adapted well. Clemson is exploring the potential for commercializing this research. However, anything that would raise the cost of chicken feed would need considerable benefits to counter that cost.

Aromatherapy for the Mind and Body

  Aromatherapy - using essential oils for flavoring, preservation, fragrance and healing -has been used by many cultures for centuries. The name may be new to this century, but perfumes, incense and extracts of aromatic plants are still used for therapeutic purposes. Certain essential oils have become associated with particular moods or notes.

  • Top notes (stimulating): caraway, basil, coriander, eucalyptus, lemon, lime, sage
  • Middle notes (neutral mood): anise seed, sweet fennel, thyme, black pepper, lavender, hyssop, rosemary, peppermint, pine
  • Base notes (relaxing, sedative): cinnamon, clove, ginger, nutmeg, sandalwood, cedarwood
  According to aromatherapy literature, vapors can be inhaled to trigger a neurochemical release in the brain through receptors in the nose and mouth, causing the mood desired and/or evoking memories of specific personal history. Essential oils are also often used as a part of aromatherapy massage, where the oils can be worked into the skin, muscles and joints.

  Aromatherapy remedies can be found for arthritis, bronchitis, colds, diarrhea, eczema, and so forth - you can't quite go to "z," but there are therapies for any number of ills. Does it work? The general advice is to treat any form of aromatherapy with skepticism. It may be allright to try, but aromatherapy is mostly unsubstantiated, and some "remedies" could be harmful. And remember - it is not recommended to ingest essential oils as treatment. (However, consuming a freshly-baked cinnamon bun as a relaxant is highly recommended.)

The nightshade family
  The nightshade, or Solanaceae family, includes tomatoes, tobacco and, most notably in this case, the genus Capsicum. Within this group are bell peppers (sweet, mild), tabascos, paprika, and habaneros (very hot). Red cayenne peppers, the hot variety of the Capsicum group, have been used for medicinal purposes since the 1500s. Believed to have originated in South America, cayenne was, according to early medical writings, used to "help digestion, provoke urine, relieve toothache, preserve the tooth from rottenness, comfort a cold stomach, expel the stone from the kidney, and take away the dimness of sight."

  All capsicums contain a crystalline alkaloid known as capsaicin (vanillyl amids of isodenoic acid), which is responsible for the pungency, or heat. The level of capsaicin determines the level of heat, which is generally measured either as pure capsaicin or by the Scoville organoleptic test. The Scoville scale was developed in 1902, and ranks heat from zero to 300,000 Scoville units. Bell peppers measure 0 on the scale; cayenne 30,000 to 50,000; chipotle 75,000; jalepeño 5,000; and habeneros 100,000 to 300,000.

  Capsaicin and dihydrocapsaicin make up 80% to 90% of the capsaicinoids in peppers, and are the most pungent of the capsaicinoids. Also contained are nordihydro-, homo-, and homodihydrocysaicin.

  In addition to capsaicin, red peppers also are a good source of minerals including thiamine, iron and magnesium, and vitamins A, B, C, E, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin and beta-carotene, which leads to some use as a colorant, along with paprika. Paprika is a capsicum obtained by drying and grinding red peppers. The brilliant red color stems from the high carotenoid content. Taste, pungency and color depend upon the type of red pepper sourced. Color is measured by spectrophotometry and is expressed as ASTA color units. Paprika oleoresin is extracted with hexane or ethylene dichloride, and is generally used in sausages, cheeses, soups and sauces.

  Capsaicin has a rich history in alternative medicine, and a number of uses have been cited. It has been noted for its antimicrobial and antioxidative properties, leading to speculation that it may help to prevent cancer. Capsaicin has also been shown to provide relief for the oral mucositis (sores of the mouth) caused by chemotherapy. It acts by desensitizing the mucous membrane. When blended with sugar in a candy, it provides pain relief, while the sugar eases the capsaisin burn.

  A small amount of pepper in soft, baby-type food can help stroke patients swallow their food, according to Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital in Chicago. Also, according to the Herb Research Foundation, Boulder, CO, chili peppers can increase circulation in the stomach and intestines, helping digestion and decreasing flatulence.

  How can capsaicin have such wide-ranging effects? It has been suggested that capsaicin acts as a counter-irritant, reducing pain and swelling, aiding circulation, stimulating perspiration, and warming or cooling the extremities. Peppers can also help break up the respiratory effects of a cold, acting as an expectorant. In Russia, one potion consisting of a couple of pods in a bottle of vodka serves to treat both internal and external maladies. This concoction seems to relieve symptoms of colds, rheumatism and stomachache, as well as serve as an ingredient in a liniment to treat skin ailments or aches and pains in the joints.

  Studies are underway to confirm whether or not capsaicin, by increasing metabolic rate and body temperature, can increase the metabolism of body fat and/or slow fat absorption from the small intestine. Capsaicin is available in an over-the-counter drug, Zostrix®, for easing the pain of psoriasis, shingles, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Studies have also indicated that capsaicin may be instrumental in blocking production of "substance P," which conveys the message of pain to the brain.

  Incidentally, capsaicin can bring an assailant to his knees with one good spray to the face - pepper spray can cause respiratory distress, eye irritation and choking. For this purpose, the more capsaicin, the better. Also, if pesky squirrels are a problem in a bird feeder, about 20,000 Scoville units on the feed will discourage squirrels, but does not affect birds.

  Black pepper and white pepper are not related to the red peppers, but come from the "peppercorn" of a climbing vine, Piper nigrum. The black pepper (which includes the dark skin of the berry) is more aromatic than the white (minus the skin), but the white is more pungent in flavor. Piperine, an alkaloid, provides the pungency. The essential oil content is 80% monoterpenes, with most of the remainder sesquiterpenes. Peppers increase appetite by stimulating the taste buds, aiding digestion and increasing gastric secretion.

The ginger family
  If you were to prepare for a visit to the ginger family by looking up "ginger spice" in an Internet search engine, there'd certainly be a number of hits - but perhaps not many pertaining to food. This should be a temporary situation, though - Ginger has left the Spice clan, and things should return to "normal" soon. However, outside the music world, ginger belongs to the Zingiberaceae family, which contains some important aromatic and color-producing spices such as turmeric, ginger, cardamom, grains of paradise and galangal.

   When the roots of Curcuma longa are dried and ground, the result is a yellowish-orange powder called turmeric. At one time, turmeric was called Indian saffron - Marco Polo thought that he had discovered an inexpensive saffron substitute. India produces two types of turmeric: Madras, used within India, and Alleppey, which is exported. Alleppey has higher color, more flavor, more volatile oil, and more curcumin, the carotenoid responsible for the color. The active components of turmeric are the curcuminoids. Curcumin has an antioxidant effect, and it has been suggested that it has anti-inflammatory action similar to aspirin. The Chinese use turmeric to improve digestion and reduce gas, and to stimulate bile production in the liver. Herbalists recommend it for irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, Crohn's disease, diarrhea, and post-salmonella infection. It is also said to improve beneficial intestinal flora, while inhibiting certain harmful bacteria.

  Oleoresin from ginger roots can be found in ginger ale, gingerbread, gingersnap cookies, ginger tea, ginger wine, cordials and candies, as well as a number of great Chinese, Indian and Jamaican dishes. The volatile oil of ginger contains zingiberene, AR-curcumene and farnesene, while the pungent taste is due to gingeroles and zingerone. In addition to its aromatic contribution to a food, ginger tea is often used to improve circulation, aid digestion, and treat nausea from motion sickness, pregnancy or chemotherapy.

  The ginger family also houses cardamom, whose sweet, aromatic seeds contain about 8% essential oil and a number of the previously mentioned compounds. In the past, cardamom was used as an aromatic in pomanders, and as an aphrodisiac. It is an essential part of Arabic coffee, and is also used in meat and rice dishes.

  Galangal is a warm, sweet, spicy aromatic root-stock like ginger. It blends well with garlic, and is considered to be an emerging ethnic ingredient, essential to many Asian dishes. Aromatic, spicy, warm and slightly bitter grains of paradise seeds are native to West Africa. In the Middle Ages, they were highly valued, but are difficult to obtain now.

The parsley family
  Parsley, celery, coriander, cilantro, caraway, fennel, dill, anise and cumin belong to the Umbelliferae, or parsley family. We all know parsley leaves act as a garnish for a number of dishes, but the roots can also be used for cooking, as is celery. The fruits have a strong diuretic effect, and are used in stews or soups. Myristicin and terpenes dominate the essential oil of the fruits.

  Prior to the Middle Ages, a wild form of celery referred to as selinon, or smallage, was used as a diuretic and a carminative, which is a treatment to reduce intestinal gas. Today, celery - in dehydrated, flaked and freeze-dried forms - is often used as a garnish in vegetable dishes. Celery seed, salt and oleoresin are used primarily for flavor.

  Caraway is probably Europe's oldest cultivated spice. In the past, it was used as a laxative, colic treatment and breath freshener. It has a pleasant odor similar to that of dill, and a warm, slightly bitter flavor stemming from a high concentration of carvone in the essential oil. In the 17th century, caraway was coated with sugar and served with fruit and used as a digestive, known as comfits.

  Caraway and cumin are sometimes confused - their flavors have some similarities, and their seeds are similar in appearance. In Germany, cumin and caraway are combined in a liqueur called kümmel. Cumin is essential to chili powder, and is often added on top for a "real" chili flavor. Herbalists recommend cumin tea for stress, and other cultures use it as a carminative. Researchers in India are studying cumin's anti-cancer potential - it appears to increase the activity of glutathione-S-transferase, which is active against cancer, and also blocks chromosome damage.

  The word dill is derived from the Norse word for "to lull," since it was used to lull small babies to sleep. American colonists used it for the same purpose, and also chewed the seeds for diversion in church. Today, we use two components of dill - dill seed, and the tops of the plant, which are referred to as dill weed. The seeds contain 2% to 4% essential oil, most of which is carvone (also present in caraway). The pickle industry is the largest user of dill, primarily dill-weed oil. Herbalists recommend dill tea for colic, and as a carminative.

  Fennel seeds look somewhat like caraway seeds (and cumin or dill), and smell and taste like anise, which is also part of the parsley family. The essential oils of both fennel and anise seeds contain predominately anethole, which is responsible for the licorice flavor and aroma. Fennel also contains fenchone, which smells like camphor, and limonene, which smells like lemon. In the past, fennel was regarded as a diet aid. Pliny felt that fennel improved eyesight, and fennel tea and eyewash are still recommended for strained eyes. Fennel tea is also used for colic, and as a muscle relaxant, diuretic, stimulant and carminitive. As with other parsley family seeds, our early ancestors chewed fennel seeds for diversion, to curb hunger and to freshen the breath.

  Both coriander and cilantro come from the same plant, Coriandrum sativum. Coriander is the dried ripened fruit, characterized by a lemon-sage note. It is used in seed, essential oil or oleoresin form. The seed is used primarily in gin and liqueurs, and is the flavor added to American cigarettes that makes them distinctive. Cilantro, sometimes known as Chinese parsley, has a parsley/citrus flavor, and is used in a dried or freeze-dried form. Cilantro is most common to Mexican sauces, Tex-Mex dishes, Chinese products and many other popular ethnic dishes.

The mint family
  Lamiaceae, the mint family, hosts sage, basil, oregano, thyme, and rosemary - all of which have qualities beyond flavoring. Thyme is used for visual effect in foods, but its components also have antibacterial and antioxidant properties. In France, it is tied into bundles with other spices and added as bouquet garni to soups, sauces and stews. Thyme leaves are strongly aromatic; their essential oil contains primarily the phenols thymol and carvacol, as well as small quantities of thymol methyl ether, cineol, alpha-pinene and borneol. In legend, thyme has been used to soothe the throat, cure coughs, promote sleep and rid nightmares, improve digestion, cure hangovers, improve sight, warm the heart, soothe the liver, decrease hot swelling, purge phlegm, and cure pains in the loins and hips.

  Thymol, which is now produced synthetically, has been used as a carminative, anti-spasmodic and counter-irritant. It can be found in cough drops, antiseptic mouthwash, liniments, anti-fungal creams and herbal teas.

  The leaves of rosemary yield a product that is strongly aromatic (camphor-like) and slightly bitter. Rosemary has gained a reputation as a good natural antioxidant. The essential oil contains 1,8-cineol, camphor, borneol, bornyl acetate and alpha-pinene as primary components.

  Oregano is by far the largest-selling herb/spice today, mostly because of its heavy use on pizza and in Italian dishes. Oregano is a wild plant, but is often domestically cultivated as marjoram.

  Second on the list of best-selling herbs is sage, which was once grown in Middle-Age Europe and China specifically for medicinal purposes, and often taken as sage tea. Now, it is primarily used in pork sausage, poultry seasonings and stuffings.

  Use of basil, like its other mint relatives, has boomed over the past 30 years, from 40,000 lbs. imported to greater than a million lbs. - most of this due to pizza and Italian foods. In the past, basil has had more symbolic purposes than medicinal, but basil does have important antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. The essential oil contains a complex and widely varied composition, depending upon the species and environmental growth conditions. Linalool, methyl chavicol and eugenol play a role in aroma, while a number of monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes and phenols lend the flavor characteristics.

Other families
  Cloves and allspice are both members of the myrtle family, Myrtaceae, and both are high in eugenol content. Eugenol is an alcohol noted for its antimicrobial properties. Cloves contain as high as 15% essential oil, with eugenol dominating at 70% to 85%. Cloves are noted for their strong aroma and burning taste, and have been used to freshen breath, as a room deodorant, and as a preservative. In the United States, they show up in baked ham, sweet pickles, and a variety of seasoning powders. Cloves dominate the flavor of Worcestershire sauce. Allspice has a distinctive clove-like aroma, and is frequently used in seasoning powders.

  Nutmeg and mace come from the same plant, Myristica fragrans, a nutmeg tree grown in India. Nutmeg is the seed, and mace is the thin tissue between the seed and the pulp. Both give off a strong aroma, contain 10% to 12% essential oil, and have antimicrobial and antioxidant properties from a complex mixture of terpenes, terpene derivatives and phenols. Notable among these are pinenes, terpinene, limonene, myrcene, linalool, terpineol, safrol, and myristicine. Myristicine is insecticidal and a hallucinogen, and the other components have anti-bacterial and antioxidant properties.

  Fenugreek, a seed extract from Trigonella, a member of the bean family, contains very little essential oil, but is known for its vanilla-scented coumarin and high mucilage content. It is used as an emollient in veterinary drugs, a poultice, and in tea for dyspepsia, diarrhea, sore throats and fevers.

  Science is only starting to learn the hows and whys of the intricate role that spices and herbs play in foods. So next time you think you're only giving a product a flavor boost by sprinkling in the spice blend, remember that the secret world of spices might be working behind the scenes, providing a host of additional benefits.

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