Herbs and Spices: Hot and Healthy

April 23, 2008

6 Min Read
Herbs and Spices: Hot and Healthy

Culinary herbs and spices are at a rare and heady juncture in the food industry; they’re right smack in the middle of several hot consumer trends. Herbs and spices can answer to today’s hottest demands—bold flavor, ethnic flair, functional attributes, fresh and local, natural, and healthy—all in one package. And the food industry is blending them into a number of food categories, from fine dining to convenience-food products: think vegetable cocktail with an aromatic rosemary twig stirrer at a chic city eatery and a microwavable meal of prawns with rice in a vegetable curry sauce.

Culinary herbs and spices are also enjoying a renaissance for their health benefits. For centuries, cultures across the globe have believed in the medicinal properties of such plants, and now modern science is proving them right—a spicier life is, indeed, a healthier one.

Much of the buzz on herbs and spices is about their antioxidant content and how it relates to cancer prevention, heart health, and anti-inflammatory action. The intake of herbs can contribute greatly to the total intake of plant antioxidants. Salad dressings containing herbs and spices can increase the antioxidant capacity of a salad, according to a study published in the 2005 issue of British Journal of Nutrition (93: 257-266). For example, adding marjoram increased the antioxidant capacity of a salad portion by 200%. The American Institute for Cancer Research, Washington, D.C., suggests that herbs and spices should be used as flavor enhancers because of their health-protective phytochemicals, which can help fight cancer and other diseases.

Although a number of herbs and spices are under investigation for their health benefits, research has turned up the heat on some superstars. "Culinary herbs and spices hold great promise. The ingredients with the greatest amount of clinical research are turmeric, cinnamon, ginger and garlic," says Daniel Fabricant, Ph.D., vice president scientific and regulatory affairs, Natural Products Association, Washington D.C.

Curcumin, the king of spice

One of the most widely touted components in spices for health is curcumin, the yellow pigment found in turmeric (Curcuma longa) and curry powder. Based on cell culture and animal studies, components of curcumin appear to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal properties, with potential activity against cancer, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease and other chronic diseases. Pilot phase-I clinical trials have shown curcumin to be safe up to a daily dosage of 12 grams for three months.

Garlic’s golden touch

The good news about garlic’s health benefits are no longer based on folklore. We now know that garlic (Allium sativum) contains substances, including allicin, allixin, allyl sulfides, quercetin and organosulfur compounds, with potential anticancer activity. Data from the Iowa Women’s Study, which followed up on 41,837 women, revealed that those who ate significant quantities of garlic were approximately 30% less likely to develop colon cancer (American Journal of Epidemiology, 1994;139:1-15). Garlic has also been studied for its potential for heart protection, with mixed results. There is some evidence that consuming one half to one clove of garlic daily may have a cholesterol-lowering effect of up to 9%, but a recent clinical trial published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that consumption of garlic in any form did not reduce cholesterol levels in patients with moderately high levels (2007;167:346-532). Garlic has also been linked to anticlotting and modest reductions in blood pressure.

Ginger tonic

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) root has a rich history of medicinal use that reaches back thousands of years. Ginger’s health-promoting constituents include gingerols, shogaols, beta-carotene, capsaicin, caffeic acid, curcumin and salicylate. While ginger has been used for a variety of ailments, some scientific evidence supports its potential for fighting nausea associated with pregnancy, motion sickness and post surgery. But not all studies have found ginger effective as an anti-nausea aid. Epidemiologic and experimental data also suggests that ginger has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may lower the risk of cancer and inflammatory disease. For most purposes, the standard dosage of powdered ginger is 1 to 4 grams daily.

Verdant herbs

Green, leafy herbs such as oregano, rosemary, mint and basil are getting high scores for their phytochemical and antioxidant power. In one study, fresh oregano had the highest antioxidant activity (3 to 20 times more than the other herbs studied) among 27 culinary herbs and 12 medicinal herbs, ranking even higher than fruits and vegetables (American Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2001; 49(11):5165-5170). Rosemary’s aromatherapy effect has been investigated for its role in relieving pain and improving mood. Peppermint appears to possess antimicrobial, antiviral, antioxidant, antitumor and anti-allergenic potential. And basil contains hypolipidemic and antioxidant substances that have shown some protection against carcinogen-induced cancers in mice.

The comfort of cinnamon

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) is much more than just a fragrant ingredient in apple pie; it is gaining attention for its antioxidant capacity, antimicrobial effects and potential role in insulin activity. Cinnamon’s terpenoids, especially eugenol and cinnamaldehyde, contribute to its medicinal properties.

In a review of trials that evaluated the efficacy of cinnamon supplementation in type 2 diabetics, researchers looked at three trials involving 164 patients with type 2 diabetes. Two studies reported modest improvements in lowering blood glucose with cinnamon supplementation in small patient samples, and one trial showed no significant difference between the cinnamon and the placebo in lowering blood glucose (Pharmacotherapy, April 2007;27(4):595-9). Typical dosages of ground cinnamon are 1 to 4 grams daily.

A spectrum of vibrant herbs and spices are also garnering scientific interest, including nutmeg, pepper, sage and lemongrass. Health experts stress that more research needs to occur before specific recommendations for health benefits can be made for particular herbs and spices. But it’s not a stretch for consumers to focus on foods rich in flavorful, aromatic herbs and spices. Greece recommends herbs and spices in its dietary guidelines as valuable sources of antioxidant compounds.

Welcoming culinary herbs and spices into food production may present its challenges. Fabricant cautions that some spices might produce an unfavorable flavor in some food products, but an extract can be used to deliver the same benefits. Manufacturers of functional food products who want to include label claims for particular herbs and spices will need to perform trials on their specific products. But one thing’s for sure, culinary herbs and spices present many opportunities to give consumers what they want most: bold flavor and health in every bite.

Sharon Palmer is a registered dietitian with 16 years of experience in health-care and foodservice management. She writes on food and nutrition for newspapers, magazines, websites and books. Palmer makes her home in Southern California and can be reached at [email protected].

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