We typically think of spices as flavors. They make things taste spicy or zesty, add complexity, combine with other spices to form popular and traditional flavor profiles like “chili powder” or “garam masala,” and simply just make food taste really good. This is true, but they’re also much more. Similar to herbs, spices tend to be anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial out of self-preservation—when they’re growing on a plant, they don’t want fungus and bacteria and bugs to eat them and so they employ various compounds that deter and inhibit predators. We can leverage those compounds to enhance the health effects of food, make the cooking process safer, reduce the formation of carcinogens, and actually prevent spoilage.
Oh, and properly used spices make food taste great.
I’d say that using spices is the quintessential human activity. It’s a perfect example of taking something that’s “bad” on paper—antimicrobial compounds, anti nutrients that are meant to kill bugs and fungus—and using it for our own benefit. Let’s get down to the spices:
Black pepper isn’t just something that goes with salt. When freshly ground, it’s incredibly piquant and even spicy, and it has potent effects on lipid oxidation and carcinogen formation.
- Black pepper extract reduces LDL oxidation in vitro.
- When fed to pigs, black pepper raises HDL levels (“good cholesterol,” or at least a marker of good metabolic health).
- When added to beef patties before cooking, black pepper reduced the formation of heterocyclic amines (a potential carcinogen).
My favorite way to season steak is still salt and lots of black pepper. Nothing else is needed.
Despite its vibrant yellow color, turmeric is actually a rather mild spice. It’s a little spicy, a little bitter, and it certainly has a unique aroma, but by itself it just doesn’t taste like very much at all. It’s typically combined with other spices to make curry powder.
As a health supplement, it’s extremely powerful.
- Turmeric appears to be effective against arthritis.
- When added to meat during or prior to cooking, turmeric reduces the formation of heterocyclic amines.
My favorite way to use turmeric is with black pepper. In fact, black pepper “activates” turmeric, making it far more effective in your body. Soft boiled eggs tossed in turmeric, black pepper, and salt is an excellent way to obtain the health benefits of turmeric without having to cook up an elaborate Indian curry.
There are two types of cinnamon. Ceylon, or true cinnamon, and cassia, which is what most “cinnamon” sold in the US actually is. Both taste like cinnamon and can be used in recipes interchangeably, but Ceylon is more complex, sweeter, and generally more subtle. I prefer Ceylon personally. It’s also worth noting that cassia has a decent amount of coumarin, which can thin the blood and harm the liver when eaten in excess. If you go with cassia cinnamon, don’t eat more than a teaspoon a day.
- Ceylon is unique in that it contains a specific polyphenol that may have efficacy against Alzheimer’s.
- Cassia appears better for lowering blood glucose levels, although Ceylon is also helpful here too.
- Cinnamon in general can be very useful the morning after a bad night’s sleep by reducing the insulin resistance that normally accompanies poor sleep.
Cinnamon is an underrated spice for pork.
Perhaps the world’s most expensive spice by weight, saffron is derived from the dried stigmas of the Crocus sativus flower. It imparts a unique golden hue and a flavor that I can only describe as grassy and sweet.
Considering its health aspects:
- Saffron is notable for its mood-enhancing properties. Studies have indicated its potential effectiveness against depressive symptoms, possibly on par with certain conventional antidepressants.
- Saffron has shown efficacy in reducing waist circumference, lowering blood sugar, and improving sexual function.
- Additionally, saffron might have potential benefits for vision. Certain compounds in saffron appear protective against age-related macular degeneration.
Use saffron sparingly in dishes like paella, biryani, or Persian rice. It’s also very nice in broth or chicken soup. You don’t need more than a small pinch to impart both color and flavor.
Cumin has a long and rich history of culinary and medicinal use. Its distinctively warm, slightly bitter, and earthy flavor can be traced back to ancient Egyptian tombs and the kitchens of ancient Rome and Greece and later into the New World.
- Cumin lowers fat mass, waist circumference, fasting blood sugar and insulin, and improves host of other metabolic markers in overweight women.
- Cumin seeds also possess antioxidant properties, which assist in neutralizing harmful free radicals in the body.
- Cumin shows promise in reducing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, according to a recent case series.
While cumin is a cornerstone in many curry blends and chili powders, it’s great as a standalone spice. I highly recommend using whole cumin seeds, toasting them, and then grinding them for use in spice rubs on lamb or beef.
There are many varieties of paprika, but they all come from ground dried peppers. Some are hot, some are mild, some are sweet, and some are smoked. They all confer a brilliant red hue to the dish, a floral fragrance, and an enormous antioxidant profile.
- Paprika is loaded with lutein and zeaxanthin, which may improve cognitive function and eye health.
- Paprika is known for its antioxidant-rich profile, reducing carcinogen formation during cooking.
I love putting paprika in almost everything. As I said before, there’s a paprika for every occasion. Smoked paprika can replicate the smokiness of great barbecue. Hot paprika can rival cayenne for sweet heat. Sweet paprika is fruity, tart, and bright, while mild paprika is very subtle but can contribute color and fragrance to a dish.
If you need something acidic, something citrusy, and you don’t have fresh lemon or lime juice and you’d rather not use vinegar, try sumac. It’s how the Romans added acid to their dishes before lemons made it to the Empire. As a nutraceutical, it shows some promise.
- Sumac lowers blood sugar, fasting insulin levels, and insulin resistance, although the results need to be confirmed with further studies.
- 1000 mg of sumac a day reduces diastolic blood pressure in overweight adults.
- 2000 mg a day lowers fasting insulin, inflammatory markers, and improves liver fibrosis and liver enzymes in patients with non alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Most recipes involving sumac are African or Middle Eastern, but there’s no reason you can’t use it for any dish that needs acidity. It goes great in BBQ rubs, on lamb, or on chicken and fish.
Cardamom is known for its intensely aromatic, even “sweet” flavor. There are two types: green and black. Green cardamom is lighter and more delicate, with a sweet, eucalyptus note. Black cardamom is more robust, with a smoky character.
It’s impressive as a nutraceutical:
- Cardamom lowers triglycerides and improves liver antioxidant status.
- Cardamom has broad efficacy against metabolic syndrome.
- There’s evidence suggesting cardamom’s potential in helping lower blood pressure, particularly in individuals with elevated levels.
Cardamom typically appears in desserts of all kinds, but I also like adding a touch of it to chili. Gives it a real interesting flavor profile.
Coriander is the dried seed from the cilantro plant. The seeds provide a warm, nutty, slightly citrusy taste that works well in Mexican cooking, marinades, and broths but tastes almost nothing like cilantro the herb. It also provides some health effects:
- Coriander seed powder reduces triglycerides and blood pressure in overweight patients.
- The seeds may also reduce lead-induced oxidative stress in the brain, at least in rats.
- Coriander may even have efficacy against anxiety.
Any Mexican cooking involving beef almost requires coriander seed to make an appearance. If I’m marinating skirt or flap steak, I’m including coriander (along with garlic, lime juice, and cumin).
Cayenne is a dried hot pepper. It’s known for its fiery heat, which is due to its high concentration of capsaicin. This bright red spice adds both zest and depth to dishes. The really good stuff also has some sweetness. As for the health effects:
- Cayenne is a bit of a “broad spectrum” nutraceutical, positively affecting almost everything you can imagine.
- Topical cayenne may even enhance wound healing.
- When added to meat before/during cooking, cayenne inhibits the formation of carcinogens.
Cayenne’s unique heat profile makes it a perfect addition to spicy dishes. It’s not so hot that it overwhelms the flavor, but it’s potent enough to taste even just a sprinkle. I really like finishing a dish with a dusting of cayenne.
No single spice does everything. Rather than choose your spices based on the potential health benefits, choose spices that will make the food you’re cooking taste great, and trust that the benefits will emerge on their own. If there’s one lesson to learn, it’s that every culinary spice also has nutritional applications and effects.
What are your favorite spices, folks? How do you like to use them?