By Lauren Zambito, NLC
The biggest reason you’ll love cooking with spices? FLAVOR.
Spices are aromatic, natural substances that come from various parts of plants, such as the root, bud, or seed. For thousands of years, we have incorporated spices into our diets as a way to enhance flavor. Over time, it’s become clear that they offer far more than that.
Unlike sauces and condiments that are typically filled with refined sugar and other processed ingredients, spices allow you to boost the taste of food without adding additional calories. They also come with their own amazing health benefits.
The Health Benefits of Spices
Studies show that various spices have many different health-promoting properties.
For starters, spices can promote good digestion by stimulating motility and enzyme production in the gut. Some have anti-inflammatory properties; some provide powerful antioxidants; some are linked to controlling appetite. There’s even evidence that many spices play a role in cancer prevention. All of these benefits are owed to their high density of phytonutrients and trace minerals.
Good news: There are tons of spices out there that can provide you with these benefits and countless ways to vary the flavors of healthy food to make it more interesting, delicious, and nutritious.
Here are five to start with that are both easy to find and super good for you.
5 Spices to Always Have on Hand
1. Cinnamon is a powerful little spice that you probably already have in your pantry. It’s anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and is rich in antioxidants. It’s also been shown to have tumor-fighting abilities in lab studies. The best part: Cinnamon is a warming spice and a yummy way to sweeten a meal, sans sugar. Sprinkle it into your coffee, on roasted sweet potatoes, into your oatmeal, over banana slices, or on broiled grapefruit.
2. Cardamom shares many of the same properties as cinnamon and pairs well with it, too (cinnamon and cardamom latte, anyone?). It is linked to improved digestion and has been shown to have potential heart- and liver-health benefits in animal studies. Cardamom has a distinct flavor, yet it can be used in sweet or savory ways. Buy it ground and add it to coffee or tea, citrus fruits, and curries, or use it to season brown or basmati rice.
3. Ginger is an impressive root with many research-backed benefits. It’s a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent, and if that’s not enough, it works effectively as a natural remedy for nausea, bloating, and overall gut health. By aiding in digestion and settling tummy troubles, it subsequently helps us better absorb and assimilate nutrients from the food we consume.
Ginger has a strong, refreshing flavor and can be bought in its natural root form (found in the produce section) or ground (where you would find spices). It’s nice to have both on hand. Straight off the root, slice about a quarter-inch thick piece and steep it in hot water as a night-time tea to help with digestion after dinner or as a cleansing tonic in the morning to start your day. You can also blend a piece of the root in your smoothies or sprinkle ground ginger into Asian-inspired dishes or to season fish or chicken.
4. Turmeric, particularly its antioxidant component, curcumin, has been studied extensively, with evidence indicating it may help improve conditions like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, inflammation, diabetes, and even depression. Furthermore, turmeric has been shown to boost immunity. Most impressively, it has been shown to have anticancer properties in lab studies.
Overall, turmeric is something that anyone and everyone can benefit from incorporating into their diet. It can be purchased in its natural state, as a root, or ground to easily add it to a variety of dishes. Despite its bold color (and nutritional benefits), it’s very mild in taste, so you can freely sprinkle it over vegetables like carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, or squash or add it to soups, curries, and smoothies. One of the most delicious ways to enjoy it is by making a turmeric latte.
5. Cayenne pepper packs a punch in both the heat and health department, thanks to its active component, capsaicin, which is linked to weight loss and lower blood pressure in some studies and improved digestion in Eastern cultures. Cayenne can also relieve pain related to arthritis, skin conditions, and other ailments when applied directly to the skin. Finally, a recent study found eating hot peppers (which contain the same active component) may also help you live longer. (Too bad you can’t eat it in scoops!)
Cayenne pepper has quite the kick, so use it cautiously if you’ve never cooked with it before. It can be added to warm water with lemon, ginger, and honey as an amazing immunity elixir, or more traditionally, it can be lightly sprinkled over vegetables, eggs, chicken, or fish for some major flavor.
So, on your next grocery store trip, be sure to make a stop in the spice aisle—your health and taste buds will thank you.
Lauren Zambito, NLC, is a health coach in Austin, TX who takes a holistic approach in order to help people reach the healthiest versions of themselves. She has a personal mission to simplify nutrition with real, whole, delicious foods. Lauren studied biology at the University of Texas and is Nutritious Life Certified. www.barenutritionhealth.com