When we season our foods with spices, we tend to have flavor in mind. But herbs and spices have myriad health benefits. They can help us to cut down on salt and — since they are plant-based — spices may pack an impressive phytonutrient punch, with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory or even anti-cancer potential.
In fact, registered dietitian nutritionist Carrie Dennett recently compared your spice cabinet to “a natural pharmacy in your kitchen.”
So are some herbs and spices more potent than others? Yes, actually.
“Generally the brighter or darker in color, the higher the antioxidant content,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Serena Ball, MS, RD, who writes about food and nutrition at Teaspoon of Spice, as well as for Healthy Eats. “Think turmeric.”
Ball advises health-minded cooks to keep spices such as cinnamon, cayenne and cumin on hand, as well.
“Several teaspoons of cinnamon a day could help increase insulin sensitivity in people who have diabetes,” she says.
Cayenne is a wonderful source of vitamin A (1 tablespoon provides 44% the recommended daily amount), and may even decrease your appetite and boost your metabolism, Ball says. But, she warns, if the pepper does help you burn calories, the effect is “probably minimal.”
Cumin, meanwhile, is a serious powerhouse: You can get 22% of the daily recommended amount of iron from a single tablespoon of cumin, Ball notes, adding that the spice “also has potential anti-inflammatory effects” and may even help the body battle bacteria, control blood sugar and stave off cancer.
To get the most health bang for your spice buck and preserve the “volatile” compounds in your spices, Ball recommends grinding your own or buying small amounts of pre-ground, jarred spices and using them quickly, since they oxidize rapidly.
She suggests looking for recipes online, and especially experimenting with Indian cuisine, which traditionally include cayenne, turmeric and cumin (a triple spice whammy). But feel free to branch out and add spices to all sorts of dishes, she urges.
“People think they have to follow a recipe. Nope!” Ball says. “You can almost always add more herbs or spices than the recipe-called-for amount to get more of the benefits.”
In other words, why not vary your routine? Spice of life and all …
Amy Reiter is a writer and editor based in New York. A regular contributor to The Los Angeles Times, she has also written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Glamour, Marie Claire, The Daily Beast and Wine Spectator, among others, as well as for Salon, where she was a longtime editor and senior writer. In addition to contributing to Healthy Eats, she blogs for Food Network’s FN Dish.
*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.