Spices are used in cuisines all over the world to enhance taste and flavor of the dishes. Since ancient times people utilized seeds, roots, barks, leaves, and other fragrant parts of plants to add flavor to their food and to preserve it. The earliest written records come from the Assyrians who wrote around 2300 BC that the gods drunk sesame seed spiced wine before they created the earth. Spices were also used for medicinal purposes throughout the world. Their antibacterial and carminative properties seem to have been widely known. Phytochemicals in spices are responsible for their specific flavor and aroma, a characteristics that made them attractive in the first place.
In Antiquity and during the Middle Ages spices were treated as luxury goods and were as precious as gold. Because of their rarity, almost magical properties were attributed to them in Europe. They were very often used as aphrodisiacs. Spice trade changed the history of many regions. It was very lucrative, but not without dangers. Great fortunes were made. Trading institutions such as the British India Company or the Royal Dutch Company contributed to the exponential economic growth on the one hand, and to the colonial expansion and exploitation on the other.
Modern science is continuously researching the healing properties of spices. Scientists were able to identify and isolate bio-active ingredients in spices, such as sulfides, thiols, terpenes, aldehydes, and others. It was discovered that some spices can help digestion, improve cardiovascular health as well as the cognitive function. Some compounds found in spices are potent anti-carcinogens. Others are able to relieve inflammation, control blood sugar, and strengthen the immune system. Spices stimulate appetite and have strong anti-bacterial and anti-vermicidal properties. They display very strong antioxidant activity. In fact, they are considered to have more antioxidant compounds than fruits and vegetables.
Medicinal properties of commonly used spices:
- Allspice derives its name from the fact that is smell like a combination of many spices, especially cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. It is also known as pimento, because the Spaniards mistook it for piper nigrum, or black pepper. Allspice is the only spice that is native to the Western Hemisphere. The evergreen trees grew wildly in the rain forests of South and Central America and are now cultivated in Mexico, Jamaica, and other Central American countries. Allspice is used for its carminative and digestive properties. Like cloves, it also contains eugenol. It has warming, blood vessels diluting properties and can be used as a treatment of arthritis and to sooth sore muscles. However, the essential oil of allspice can irritate the skin.
- Anise is a plant from the family Umbelliferae also called Apiaceae and is native to the Eastern Mediterranean and South West Asia. Its essential oils deliver the fragrance and flavor of licorice. Anise was traditionally used to aid digestion. It has strong carminative properties and can also be used as a mild expectorant. It is popularly used in cough medicines and to freshen the breath. It has antiseptic and antispasmodic properties.
- Cardamom, known in India as the queen of spices, comes from the ginger family. It a very aromatic, old spice that was native to Southern India since ancient times. Today, cardamom is also cultivated in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Mexico, Guatemala, and Central America. Entire pods and the seeds are used in cooking and for medicinal purposes. Cardamom is well known for its stimulating and carminative properties. It is used to treat variety of digestive problems, including indigestion, constipation, stomach ache, and dysentery. The seeds are traditionally chewed in India after a meal to aid digestion. Cardamom is also used to treat teeth and gum infections, to heal throat infections, and to break kidney and gall stones. The Arabs attributed aphrodisiac properties to it.
- Chili is a member of the Capsicum family. Known for its "hot" taste and flavor, chili is rich in vitamin C. The red fruits are rich in beta carotene. The active compound, capsaicin, seems to have a positive effect on the blood levels of cholesterol. It also works as anticoagulant. Both aspects are valuable for people who wish to prevent cardiovascular disease. Capsaisin has thermogenic properties and may increase metabolism. Applied topically, it gives relief from arthritic joint pain.
- Cinnamon is a spice derived from the inner bark of a tropical evergreen tree from the Laurel or Lauraceae family native to Sri Lanka. Cinnamon was greatly valued for its carminative properties and was used to treat nausea and flatulence. It is used to treat a number of digestive disorders. Used alone or with other spices it can alleviate diarrhea. It is a warming spice that has been used to treat colds and circulatory problems. It was used traditionally to treat toothache and bad breath. Recent research have demonstrated that cinnamon may considerably reduce blood sugar, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels in people with Type 2 diabetes. It is important to know that cinnamon contains volatile oils that can be toxic if it is consumed in large amounts over a long period of time. It is suggested to supplement with Cinnulin PF which is extracted from cinnamon in a process in which the toxins found in whole cinnamon are filtered out.
- Cloves are the highly aromatic, unopened flower buds of an evergreen tree native to India and Indonesia that is also cultivated in Zanzibar, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Pakistan. Cloves are widely used in Indian and Mexican cuisines, and are one of the flavors associated with Christmas throughout the Western world. Cloves are well known for their carminative properties. They help to increase the secretion of the hydrochloric acid and improve peristalsis. In the Traditional Chinese Medicine they are considered to be a warming spice. Cloves are used in dentistry for their analgesic properties. The active compound eugenol constitutes up to 90 per cent of the essential oil extracted from dried cloves. It has antiseptic and analgesic properties, but can also be toxic when ingested even in small amounts.
- Cumin are the seeds of a plant from the carrot family. Its origins are in the Mediterranean, but it is now cultivated in India, China, Indonesia, and Japan. Cumin's history dates back to the Old Testament. It is used in cuisines of Asia and the Middle East, but also in Central and Eastern Europe where it is added to dishes that are considered to be difficult to digest. Cumin is regarded as a good source of iron and manganese. It contains compounds that help with digestion and prevent bloating.
- Ginger is the root of the plant Zingiber officinale that was first cultivated throughout Asia and which later spread to West Africa and the Caribbean. The active compound in ginger is called gingerol. Gingerol is a powerful anti-oxidant that has demonstrated cancer fighting properties. It is generally used to prevent motion sickness and nausea. Ginger is used to ease digestive problems and colic. However, it is strictly contraindicated for people with gall stones as it increases the bile secretion. Ginger has anti-inflammatory and blood thinning properties. It can also decrease lipid levels in serum thus helping to prevent cardiovascular disease.
- Nutmeg is the seed of the evergreen tree Myristica fragrans native to the Spice Islands (Mollucas) and is now cultivated in the Caribbean. The tree produces two spices - nutmeg and mace. Used in small doses, nutmeg can relieve a number of digestive disorders such as indigestion, flatulence, and diarrhea. It helps to alleviate nausea. The essential oil containing myristicin found application in cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries, where it is used to produce cough syrup and toothpaste. Myristicin taken in large doses is toxic. It can cause hallucinations, convulsions, nausea, vomiting, and even death. This effects will not be experienced even with the most generous culinary use of the spice.
- Pepper or piper nigrum, commonly known as the black pepper, is a flowering vine from the family Piperaceae, native to the monsoon forests of the Malabar coast of Southwest India. For a long time it was called the King of spices and highly valued as such. Like many other spices, pepper has not only been valued in the kitchen as a seasoning, but widely used as medicine. It was used to cure many digestive disorders, but also to treat colds, insects bites, joint pain, lung and liver dysfunction, tooth decay, toothache, and oral abscesses. An alkaloid compound found in pepper called piperine was found to enhance the absorption of selenium, beta carotene, vitamins of the B group, as well as other nutrients. Piperine is often added to nutritional supplements to enhance their bio-availability. Pepper contains small amounts of a mildly carcinogenic compound called safrole. When consumed in large quantities it is known to irritate the intestinal tract.
- Saffron is a spice derived from the flower of the saffron crocus, a species of crocus from the iris family of Iridaceae native to West Asia. A saffron crocus bears three stigmas which are dried and used as a spice. Saffron is considered to be the most expensive spice in the world. It takes about 75,000 blossoms to produce one pound of it. Saffron has been used to induce sweat, to suppress spasms, and to promote menstruation. Saffron has been recognized for its carminative and sedative properties. It contains many active compounds, especially carotenoids, including alpha and beta carotenes, zeaxantin, and lycopene. The high content of zeaxantine makes this spice useful in preventing macular degeneration. The most recent studies conducted in Australia and in Italy demonstrated that the vision of patients with macular degeneration improved considerably after ingestion of saffron. Saffron appeared to affect the genes regulating fatty-acid content of the cell membrane, and this makes the vision cells stronger, more resilient, and more resistant to damage. Japanese researchers found that two compounds found in saffron - crocetin and crocin - are able to improve memory and learning skills in laboratory animals. These findings indicate that saffron extract may be useful in the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders and related memory impairment. Saffron used in high doses may be detrimental to health. It can stimulate uterine contractions and should not be used therapeutically by pregnant women. Moreover, in doses higher than 12 g it may cause a kidney damage, paralysis of the central nervous system, and possibly death.
- Star anise is an evergreen plant native to South China and Vietnam. The star shaped fruits are harvested and dried before they can ripen. The dried seedpods have a flavor similar to anise and has been used for centuries in both, cooking and medicine. Like anise, star anise contains anethole. It has been used traditionally as a carminative, to relieve colic, and to promote digestion. It has some stimulating and diuretic properties. In China, where it is an ingredient in the famous Five Spices Powder, star anise is used to relieve gastrointestinal disorders, relieve cough, increase libido, ease birth, increase the milk production in new mothers, and to relieve menopausal problems. Star anise is well known for its anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, expectorant, and anti-spasmodic properties. Used externally, it can help relieve back pain and rheumatism. A caution is advised as it can cause dermatitis in sensitive individuals. Star anise contains an active compound called shikimic acid which is used by the pharmaceutical industry to produce the famous antiviral medicine called Tamiflu. The Chinese star anise, Illicium verum, should not be confused with the Japanese star anise, Illicium anisatum, which is highly poisonous and normally used as incense for its purifying aroma.
- Turmeric is a perennial plant from the ginger family Zingiberaceae. It is one of the oldest spices native to South East Asia and currently also cultivated in Australia, Peru, and the Caribbean. Turmeric has many uses. It was applied to alleviate digestive problems. Known for its antiseptic and antibiotic qualities, it was used to desinfect and heal infected wounds. Turmeric's active compound curcumin has been subject to extensive research. Studies demonstrated that it has very strong anti-oxidant, anti-tumor, anti-amyloid, and anti-inflammatory activity. Numerous clinical studies are underway to study curcumin's effects on pancreatic cancer, colon cancer, and Alzheimer's disease. Combined with piperine, curcumin may prevent the growth and proliferation of breast cancer.
New studies are being published in medical journals and alternative health publications on regular basis. Many conditions can be improved and prevented by simply adding these natural ingredients to your meals. Add some spice to your life and boost your health and vitality. After all you are what you eat! Remember, however, that some spices are very potent and should be used with caution. They can interfere with some medication. Some phytochemicals in spices have been shown to demonstrate mutagenic, carcinogenic, and allergenic properties. Some spices used in therapeutic doses may disrupt growth and the development of the embryo. Used in moderation, however, spices are beneficial. As with everything else, common sense is essential.
By Dominique Allmon
*A caution is advised. Contact your health care provider before beginning any self medication.
Add Some Spice to Your Life and Improve your Health by Dominique Allmon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.