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Spice Up Your Life: The Health Benefits of Spices

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The American Spice Trade Association writes that man began to use spices around 50,000 BC when someone discovered that some leaves gave meat a good flavor. By 2300 BC the Assyrians, in one of the earliest known written records, wrote that the gods drank sesame seed wine before creating the earth.

Spices became a form of currency that sent intrepid adventurers onto unknown oceans to find new places, people, and trade routes. The Spice Route to China sucked in Marco Polo and brought the spice trade to Europe. Christopher Columbus set out to find the way to the source of spices and found the New World. The British Raj occupied India to gain its wealth, its spice and tea trade.

It isn't just the pepper you sprinkle on that burger, or the Tabasco sauce on your chicken wings. Spices are sacred, may be aphrodisiacs, make foods tastier, and are filled with anti-oxidants. Grab some ginger and saffron, garlic and chiles, and be healthy, happy, graced by the gods, and sexually satisfied. What more does anyone need?

In 50 BC the Romans brought mustard seed to England. In 595 AD they tell us that Mohammed married a "… wealthy spice-trading widow; his followers combine missionary work with spice-trading in East and build first spice monopoly." Little I knew that the Prophet was a married businessman.

Columbus, Magellan, and Vasco de Gama were all searching for spice routes and supplies. Spices were wealth. In 1505 the Portuguese discovered Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and its important supply of cinnamon (only now are we learning about cinnamon as a disease-fighter). In about 1519 Magellan's expedition circumnavigated the globe. His surviving ship returned in 1522 with enough spices on board to finance the entire voyage.

By 1672 Elihu Yale gets to India, starts a business in spices and ends up with enough of a fortune to endow a university in Connecticut. In 1969 spices make it to the surface of the moon in an attempt to make the astronauts' food more palatable. The British discovered that powdered ginger is twice as good as Dramamine in preventing motion sickness in 1983.

This year the Chicago Tribune reported on 13 September that the US Department of Agriculture found that spices may have, ounce per ounce, measure for measure, more anti-oxidant compounds than fruits and vegetables. Anti-oxidants help prevent cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, and heart disease.

Note that these are animal and lab studies using amounts of spices far higher than most people would add to their meals so do not plan to cure any diseases with a ginger-flavored meal — fresh or powdered.

Cinnamon, evidence is mounting, is one of the most beneficial spices. Richard Anderson, a researcher with the U.S.D.A., has found that three key proteins are highly important in "…insulin signaling, glucose transport and inflammatory response." Cinnamon's insulin-like qualites come from the release of these proteins. His and prior studies have shown that even 1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon a day can allow the spice to "… help lower the risk of the constellation of factors associated with metabolic syndrome — high blood cholesterol, triglyceride and glucose levels — by as much as 10 to 30 percent."

Metabolic syndrome puts individuals at higher risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Investigation continues on cinnamon for its possible anti-bacterial and anti-microbial elements. Go ahead, put some cinnamon in that pot of steamed rice, add some chile, too. In the morning put some cinnamon in your freshly-brewed coffee, in your chocolate, on your cereal, your porridge, under your nose.

Some studies have found that merely smelling the spice can increase alertness and brain function. A study from Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia showed that the mere scent increased alertness and decreased frustration while driving. It was reported that "… one study found cinnamon improved scores on tasks such as memory, recognition, visual-motor speed and coordination, and attention."

Ginger, whose significant ingredient is called gingerol, has been known to significantly help with nausea, vomiting, and motion sickness. Gingerol is a powerful anti-oxidant with cancer-fighting attributes that may even help prevent Alzheimer's. Not only that but you can make gingerbread and ginger snaps. How can you lose? How could the Chinese survive without the taste and smell of ginger? Heat up the wok, throw in some ginger, garlic, and a cayenne pepper and stir-fry fresh vegetables cut to the perfect size, add a little meat, poultry, sea-food or tofu, and there is the perfect dinner over steamed rice.

One of the things we learn when reading about spices more deeply than just some books on Chinese or Italian cooking is the deep inter-relationship of the smells, tastes, and colors of spices and herbs that make each culture unique. Every book I read about India and almost every article on Desicritics takes note of the smells of the Indian home, the tastes and the table. There is cumin, cardamom, chile, and tumeric wafting though short stories and novels. I only wish my health allowed visits to more places, more cultures, and the chance for more smells and tastes.

Living in Mexico with a taste for the hot, the picante, what the Mexicans call rico, I thrive on chiles and peppers. It was the fault of two uncles who had a hand in raising me — one Mexican-American (with contests over who could eat the hottest tacos) and one from way back in the bayous of Louisiana. He kept the Tabasco sauce bottle close by and I, too, learned that it went with everything but dessert. Therefore any research on spices must come to spicy spices. Mexico is filled with different types of chiles – jalapeños, habaneros, chipotle. The Epicentre website has a fine encyclopedia of spices. They describe Capsicum frutescens or cayenne pepper and tell its history. I recently wondered if, since I had seen a Chinese movie where the house was covered with strings of drying cayenne, chiles had come from the New World. They did.

The name, cayenne, comes from the Cayenne region of French Guyana from where it supposedly sprung. The name itself is a Tupi Indian name. Cayenne is grown primarily in Mexico, India, East Africa, and the U.S. The Epicentre tells us that the cayenne pepper is not very different from the powdered chile save for textural differences. I disagree. I believe the difference between powdered chile and the chile itself is gigantic with the powder providing only heat whereas the pepper provides heat and taste — a unique taste from each type of pepper.

Cayenne has been used for centuries as a medicinal substance. It would appear to lower the chance of developing cardiovascular disease by lowering cholesterol and triglyceride levels. "Cayenne also reduces the platelet aggregation and increases fibrinolytic activity." It has been used for a number of digestive ailments like gas build-up, is used to relieve cramped muscles, and may be useful as an analgesic by enhancing endomorphins and may block the transmission of "substance P" which transmits some pain messages to the brain. Good stuff. Americans and Europeans are beginning to look to spicy cuisines. When the palate adjusts, spiciness becomes much more than just hot. It is filled with taste. Enough taste to help those of us on low-sodium diets. Spice it up and the salt craving is lessened (it never goes away any more than the insidious urge for tobacco ever really leaves).

India may be one of the places with the most visible use and love of spices. It is, after all, the source of spices those adventurers braved so much to reach. The cuisine rests on its colors and smells with a collection of tastes I would wish to learn more about. The Web India site describes cardamom as "the queen of spices". They describe this "high-priced" spice as cardamom and it is grown in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka. It is the dried fruit of a herbaceous perennial plant. Warm humid climate, loamy soil rich in organic matter, distributed rainfall, and special cultivation and processing methods all combine to make Indian cardamom truly unique in aroma, flavor, and size and it has parrot green colour. It has well established culinary values, and it is used in a wide range of sweets and confectionery. It is an important ingredient of garam masala, a combination spice for many vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. Cardamom acts as a mouth-freshener after meals. Tea and coffee made with cardamom are pleasantly aromatic and refreshing.

Besides all these medicinal, aphrodisiac, and flavorful points for spiciness in your life, the The Hospitality Institute in St. Paul, Minnesota is working on the anti-microbial facets of spices. Some spices have always been known for their help in preserving foods. Recent work has shown that gram-negative and gram-positive bacteria are slowed with the addition of "… garlic, onion, cinnamon, cloves, thyme, sage, and others…" These spices are being found to inhibit the growth of microbes: cinnamon, cloves, mustard, allspice, bay leaf, caraway, coriander, cumin, oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme, and, to a lesser extent, black pepper, red pepper, and ginger.

The subject fascinated me as I began to read about what I have tasted and/or smelled. There is so much more to go. Here in Mexico there are the cacti, which are not spices but interest me with their taste and medicinal qualities (as well as their use in making tequila and mezcal) and those indigenous plants and herbs from the Yucatecan jungle nearby that my velador (guard/assistant/bodyguard) is showing me as we explore the edges of the receding jungle. Hoja Santa, the holy leaf, grows easily in my yard and the jungle nearby and has a strong, unique taste. I use it steamed above a soup or sauce or wrapped around a fish under a banana leaf. Chaya grows for everyone here and a green leaf blends wonderfully with eggs and chiles — my favorite breakfast. The only problem are its tiny, hidden thorns, and little insects that bite. Picking the leaves is easy, but they bite back.

The subject of spices, like herbs, needs a lifetime to explore. That is the lure of the herbalist. It is time to examine closer and harder the spices that have been so important in the history of the world. They seem to have more going for them than even the ancients knew. Science will find the active ingredients — like gingerol — and we will continue to enjoy the magic of the colors, perfumes, and tastes.

I neglected the aphrodisiac qualities of spices. Some provide erotic – it is said – smells and others enhance male's virility. That will have to be another article. I suggest experimenting with it yourself. If you don't have any success, just sprinkle lots of cinnamon on your mate and find some fun way to take it off. I promise it will have an aphrodisiac effect. If not, it will taste good and be healthy. Blogcritics is never X-rated, so do it on your own.

Bon appetit, provecho, enjoy!

Photographs ©Beringer-Dratch.

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About hfdratch

  • Chiles, Cinnamon, Coriander, Garlic and Ginger – these are a few of my favourite things!

  • Nancy

    Garlic…cumin…coriander…cinnamon…cardamom. Mmmmmm. And vanilla – does vanilla count?

  • Howard, I wish this article could be presented in aroma-vision. It is indeed remarkable that something so filled with sensual delight could also be good for us!

    Nancy, I would most certainly count vanilla if it were used in bean form — what a heavenly scent!

  • Nancy

    I’ve got a vanilla bean tucked in my clothes drawers instead of a perfume sachet. You know, I always have guys telling me how good I smell. LOL – I once put a dab of vanilla mixed w/cinnamon behind each ear & practically had marriage proposals all day! It was a joke, but everyone loved it.

    Cinnamon….ummmm…how I could wax poetic over cinnamon. Or cassia, its cheap cousin. Either one is heavenly, and especially if you’ve just ground it fresh from sticks. Ditto cardamom. That’s another man-trap spice.

    Maybe I’ll just have myself cremated on a pile of cinnamon like the phoenix. My funeral would sure smell good!

  • Thought of adding spice to an allready spiced article;-)

    From ancient times other cultures have been in contact with Sri Lanka to obtain the spices that grow there. The best cinnamon, cloves and other spices are indigenous to Sri Lanka. People arrived to trade in spices and also left some of their culinary practices as well. Sri Lankan cooking has evolved by combining culinary practices of many of these cultures. The most noticeable impacts have been the Portuguese, Dutch, Moor and Malay influences.

  • Really Informative… No doubts..

    Nancy, thanks for ur input.. i’m planning to follow u ;). Never mind, just to use vanila in my draws..

  • Zoe

    A lot of people who love to cook are very fond of herbs and spices and look for every opportunity to present them into a dish.
    Some cooks go overabundant, and sprinkle them in everything on the off chance they will find something new.
    Then there are those who avoid seasonings altogether for fear they will ruin an entire dish by over-seasoning, or worse, adding the wrong seasoning.

    One such herb is thyme; its most active ingredient – thymol – is a well-known ingredient in products like Listerine and Vicks.
    Thymol has antibacterial and antifungal properties, which makes it useful for a number of things.

    Its oil, when inhaled, can help to loosen phlegm and relax the muscles in the respiratory tract and when made into a tea, thyme is helpful for colds and flu. Adding thyme to a dish infuses a whole new flavor and fragrance; its dry aroma and slightly minty flavor allow it to pair perfectly with minced garlic in rubs for lamb, pork, or even beef roasts, or by itself to enhance cheese, tomato, and egg dishes.

    Try adding some thyme to stuffing, spaghetti, pizza sauces or chilli.
    Thyme retains its flavor on drying better than many other herbs, and dried thyme, especially powdered, occupies less space than fresh, so less of it is required when substituted in a recipe.

    As a rule of thumb, use one-third as much dried as fresh thyme, a little less if it is ground.
    Thyme is slow to release its flavors so it is best added early in the cooking process to ensure proper flavor penetration.

    Thyme is great on roast beef, which makes a great Kummelweck.
    Kummelweck or a weck is a roast beef sandwich made famous in Buffalo, New York by being served on a special Kaiser roll topped with lots of pretzel salt and caraway seeds.
    Its name comes from its creator who is believed to have been William Wahr, a German baker from the Black Forest, an area of Germany where bread rolls are known as wecks.
    View video of how to grow Thyme here.