Herbs and spices do far more than make food taste great! We all know that chefs and cooks the world over use herbs and spices in their kitchens, for taste purposes, or for preserving, and of course for presentation effect too. However, we are now ready to fully embrace (& appreciate) the wonderful array of health benefits they possess too. Many everyday herbs and spices are quite literally “powerhouses” of nutrients and natural antioxidants to help keep our bodies in ship-shape condition. The medicinal effects of herbs and spices are no longer simply legend or folklore! Science is now revealing some quite startling results and discoveries about many well known, and well-loved culinary delights!

Did you know?
Spices have more antioxidant power (weight for weight) than fruits and vegetables? That, in itself, is an amazing discovery don’t you think? As you’re no doubt aware, a diet that’s rich in antioxidants (plant chemicals such as phenolics, flavonoids and flavanols that give fresh foods their natural “rainbow” of colours) is probably the greatest disease-preventative “medicine” you can take. Foods such as blueberries, watercress, blackcurrants, apricots, garlic, red grapes, raisins, beetroot and spinach all contain high levels of antioxidants. Antioxidants help prevent cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, and really are our best defences against aging too! Recent research has found that adding aromatic herbs such as lemon balm and marjoram can increase the antioxidant capacity of a simple salad meal by up to 200%! Another amazing discovery, and one that we can put to immediate use in our every day lives! This research reported in the British Journal of Nutrition looked at the antioxidant value of 15 different aromatic herbs and spices, commonly consumed as part of the Mediterranean diet. Of those tested, cumin and fresh ginger were found to boost the antioxidant power of food the most! Cloves also exhibit very high antioxidant capacity.

Mix and Match…
Further evidence reported in “Prostaglandins Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids” showed that using more than one herb or spice can have cumulative health effects! Combinations of ginger, onion and garlic, or onion and ginger, or simply ginger and garlic, were found to exhibit synergistic antioxidant activity and ability in protecting volatile fats that are so susceptible to “oxidation” or rancidity.

Health boosting effects of herbs and spices
Herbs and spices such as ginger, garlic, onion, mint, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, cumin, turmeric, fennel, oregano, savory, thyme, laurel, marjoram, basil, sage, and rosemary are just a handful of kitchen delights, that all possess antioxidant activity, due to their unique essential oils and nutrients.

Here are just a few examples of how they can benefit the body…

* Ginger – Ginger is a fantastic digestive aid, due to its active ingredient, gingerol. It is also a well-known remedy for nausea and sickness. Ginger also possesses great antioxidant capability. By the way, ginger biscuits are very unlikely to have any therapeutic effect!

* Garlic – Garlic is one of the most powerful remedy for the common cold, being a highly effective anti-bacterial. Being a high sulphur food (like onions and leeks too), it has many wonderful health benefits and antioxidant power, and has been shown to have anti-cancer properties.

* Cinnamon - Cinnamon has insulin-like qualities and helps to control blood glucose levels. Taking ¼ tsp once or twice a day has found to be effective in lowering markers associated with diabetes and metabolic syndrome, and improving insulin resistance. Cinnamon is also an anti-microbial, anti-fungal, and anti-inflammatory.

* Oregano – Oregano is a highly effective anti-fungal and many people’s number 1 choice for fighting the Candida Albicans yeast. It also has anti-bacterial properties, and very powerful antioxidant capacity.

* Turmeric – Turmeric is very powerful anti-inflammatory, and has effective qualities as an anti-microbial. It has also been shown to have anti-cancer effects, inhibiting the growth of prostate tumours.

* Coriander – Coriander is another antioxidant-rich leafy herb that’s also been found to be helpful in sugar metabolism. Coriander is anti-bacterial too.

* Cloves – Cloves are a wonderful antiseptic and a popular remedy for toothache!

* Cloves, cinnamon, and allspice, all have the power to inhibit the tissue damage caused by a high sugar diet, and corresponding high glucose levels.

So, not only is variety the spice of life… variety OF spice seems to be another key factor in living a healthy life! Just as it’s important to have a variety of foods in your diet, it is also beneficial to include a variety of herbs and spices too. It might be wise to get even more creative in your kitchens, and “Bring on the herbs and spices”!

Ways to “spice up your life”!

* Add fresh mint leaves or ½ tsp of ground cinnamon and grated fresh ginger root to a bowl of fresh fruit salad

* Sprinkle chopped parsley, lemon thyme to a salad of fresh green leaves such as watercress and rocket, avocado, Italian tomatoes, beetroot, cucumber and pepper

* Add chopped grated ginger root to your favourite herbal tea, OR…

* Make a simple lemon and honey tea, and add fresh mint and grated ginger

* Add a cardamom pod to your porridge while it’s cooking – especially delicious with “banana and orange” porridge – a simple dish of whole oats cooked in water or milk, with added fresh orange and banana. Add some chopped ginger too for a very warming and tasty start to the day

* Add chopped fresh chilli and fresh coriander to spice up your rice or quinoa!

* Spice up fresh vegetable or fruit juices and smoothies with fresh mint leaves, coriander, basil, parsley, ginger or cinnamon

* Sprinkle ground cardamom, cinnamon or nutmeg on your latte or cappuccino

* Grind your own special mixture of whole cumin seeds, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, and mustard seeds in a coffee grinder and add ½-1 tsp to fresh salads, soups, stir-fries or even fruit salad!

Boosting digestive health and function

A “chef” friend and colleague of mine told me recently how, when visiting the Lebanon, he learned of some fascinating facts about diet and dietary practices in “far off lands”. We were discussing the topic of herbs & spices and their different effects on digestion. He told me a wonderful story about witnessing the locals eating raw lambs liver!! Of course it had to be really fresh, and after cutting the liver into small pieces, they placed it on a large mint leaf and sprinkled it with sea salt. “They just fold the mint over the liver and go for it” he said… “I believe to stimulate digestion”. It is also served with Arak, a Pernod type digestif, just to help it down! Whilst this certainly wouldn’t be everyone’s “cup of tea”, it illustrates the brilliant and creative ways we really can “stimulate” digestion and actually assist the enzymatic breakdown of food. We can look to Mother Nature for digestive support (without having to rely on drugs from the pharmacy) simply by using some common herbs and spices in our diets.

Mint and sea salt are known to be effective digestive tonics and appetite stimulants – and not just in the Lebanon! Healing traditions around the world have used many herbs and spices for centuries to improve digestion, and to treat digestive complaints. The digestive effects of herbs and spices have also been verified by many scientific studies. With regard to the simple mint leaf, research shows that mint leaf has significant stimulatory influence on pancreatic lipase and amylase activity, the enzymes that breaks down fat and carbohydrate (Indian Journal of Pharmacology. 1995 Sep; 27(3):156-60).

According to the long-standing healing tradition of Ayurveda, spices and herbs are concentrated forms of Nature's “healing intelligence”. They are particularly revered for their ability to enhance digestion and assimilation, and helping to cleanse the body of toxins, or “ama”.

Spices, in Ayurveda, and in Indian cuisine generally, are generally eaten cooked, i.e. sautéed in oil or ghee (clarified butter) before adding other food ingredients such as vegetables, beans, grains, meats or fish. They can also be poured over cooked foods before adding fresh herbs such as coriander or mint just before serving. You might have noticed when being served an Indian meal, your “side” of fruit-spice chutney to accompany your meal. Whilst chutneys certainly enhance the taste and authenticity of the eating experience, they most certainly serve another purpose too, and that is to enhance digestion and stimulate the appetite!

Chutneys, or spice mixes provide a little of each of the six tastes – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent. With regard to eating a complete “balanced diet”, it is important to choose foods from each category. In the category of fresh vegetables and herbs, for example, you could choose fennel, carrot, or squash for the sweet taste, fresh lemons for sour, rocket (arugula), radicchio or endive for bitter, radish, white daikon or ginger root for pungent, and cabbage, broccoli or coriander (cilantro) for astringent. Eating a varied diet based on the 6 tastes naturally provides variety of colour too – another important aspect of a well-balanced diet. In fact the Chinese look toward a “colourful” diet to establish a healthy balanced intake of foods and nutrients.

Try the following digestive remedies to accompany your meals at home:

Ginger, lemon and sea/rock salt – stimulates digestion or the “digestive fire”

Dessicated coconut soaked in water and lime juice, with added chopped fresh ginger root or sea/rock salt – delicious!

Horseradish, ground ginger and rosemary – good for sluggish digestion, although it is very pungent so to everyone’s taste – or constitution!

Ginger, mint and coriander – milder, yet still very effective

Spice mixes taken prior to a meal work in the same way, and are extremely effective in improving digestion and absorption of nutrients. Taken in ½ tsp doses with a carrier such as aloe juice or warm water before each meal (& if necessary after a meal too) can effectively help to stimulate digestion and fully digest meals.

Try a mix of ½ tsp each of ground fennel, cumin and coriander swallowed with some water 20 minutes before your meals. This is a nice cooling, gentle mixture to begin with.

More great digestive remedies you can use in your kitchen…

* Bitter leaves and herbs – which is why in some countries meals are either started with, or accompanied by “green” raw leaves and salads of some kind. Use endive, radicchio, chicory or rocket in salads.
* “Bitter herb extracts” taken in herbal tincture form – stimulates production of gastrin – a hormone in the stomach which then stimulates digestive processes.
* Apple cider vinegar – a spoonful taken in warm water before a meal (wash mouth afterwards with water) can help to create the correct pH environment to “set off” digestion.
* Chewing a little fresh ginger about 30 minutes prior to the meal – a common digestive aid. Ginger can also helps with nausea and morning sickness.
* Chewing fennel seeds or mint seeds and then swallowing with water is good for abdominal pain, cramps, bloating or indigestion.
* Chewing fennel seeds after a meal helps “complete” digestion and naturally freshens the breath too.
* Chewing a cardamom pod – chew the seeds and spit out the husk of the pod.
* Fresh mint leaf juice mixed with a teaspoon each of lime juice and honey may help indigestion or flatulence.
* A cup of mint tea, or mint and ginger tea each morning or adding mint to your juices or smoothies will assist digestion.
* Fennel teas and mint teas are also good remedies for babies with colic.
* Fresh mint and parsley are both great breath fresheners

Other useful tips to enhance digestion...

* Eat slowly enough to provide plenty of time to CHEW and breakdown your food in your mouth! Remember digestion begins in the mouth, where enzymes begin to breakdown carbohydrates and fats. The stomach does not have teeth, so the chewing needs to happen in the mouth!

* Ensure the previous meal or snack is fully digested before eating again!

In summary…
Boost your digestive health, and include all the above “top” digestion-stimulating spices and herbs in your daily diet such as cumin, ginger, coriander, mint, fennel, cardamom, basil, fenugreek, parsley and oregano.

Author's Bio: 

Lucy-Ann Prideaux is a registered Nutritionist (RNutr) with an MSc degree in Human Nutrition and Metabolism. As a past competitive triathlete, and with a first class BSc degree in Sport and Exercise Science, Lucy-Ann is also an experienced authority on sports nutrition at elite and recreational level, as well as on health and fitness training. She runs "Simply Nutrition", a health, performance and nutrition consultancy. She has several e-books, products and on-line coaching & mentoring nutrition programs available from her website http://www.simply-nutrition.co.uk