Health Benefits of Herbs & Spices
Guest blog by Bec Ponsford, Accredited Practicing Dietitian and Spice Merchant.
Herbs and spices have been used traditionally across cultures for not only their culinary benefits but also their potential to improve health and wellbeing.
Here we’re exploring the evidence of some of the most common herbs and spices and their benefits beyond making food taste delicious from anti-inflammatory properties to gut health.
Please note, this information is not intended to replace any medical advice and should not be used to treat any medical condition. Always seek guidance from your health provider regarding the management and treatment of health conditions. Some herbs and spices have potent levels of compounds which need to be monitored for those people with certain health conditions, during pregnancy and when taking certain medications.
One of the most popular, delicious and versatile spices, cinnamon, has been studied in several clinical trials for its potential to improve blood glucose levels. The health properties of cinnamon relate to the unique compounds and essential oils it contains, the main one being cinnamaldehyde. The spice has been studied in both healthy individuals and those with type-2 diabetes and has been found to improve blood glucose levels.(1)
The amount shown to be most effective ranges between 1-6g of cinnamon per day, which is about a half to 2 teaspoons.(2)
Further to this, a systematic review and meta-analysis (the highest level of evidence in scientific research) on cinnamon found it to have positive effects on levels of cholesterol and triglycerides (types of fat) in the blood.(3) These findings may indicate potential protective effects of cinnamon for cardiovascular health.
The benefits of cinnamon extend to other aspects of health too. It is rich in a group of antioxidants called polyphenols, which protect the body from oxidative stress caused by free radicals and benefit gut health. Cinnamon is also known to have anti-inflammatory properties and antimicrobial effects which may help to improve dental health.(4)
Cinnamon or Cassia?
It’s important to note that studies have investigated the effects of both cassia and true cinnamon. Both have been found to have positive effects on blood glucose levels.(1)
True cinnamon is grown in Sri Lanka and comes from the family cinnamomum verum. It is often referred to as Ceylon cinnamon or sometimes cinnamomum zeylanicum. True cinnamon has a slightly lighter brown colour and is rolled as thinner, finer, tightly wrapped sheets. True cinnamon is more subtle in it’s flavour but has a beautiful earthy and floral aroma. It works well in both savoury and sweet cooking.
Cassia bark (Dutch Cinnamon) comes from the cinnamomum cassia tree and originated in Southern China, however it does grow around the world. Cassia is also referred to as Baker’s cinnamon, bastard cinnamon and Saigon cinnamon.
When comparing cassia bark to true cinnamon, you’ll notice that cassia has a thicker, less tightly rolled bark with a dark red-brown colour. In terms of flavour cassia has a potent and slightly spicy flavour. Think of cassia as the smell of a fresh cinnamon bun.
Before adding spoonfuls upon spoonfuls of cinnamon to your food, it’s important to understand which type of cinnamon you are consuming. Cassia contains a compound called coumarin, at an amount of approximately 1%. True cinnamon, on the other hand, contains only trace amounts of coumarin (around 0.004%).(5) In large amounts, coumarin may be harmful to liver health, at least as seen in animal studies.(6) It is safe to consume cassia in small amounts, but if you’re wanting to increase your daily cinnamon intake, A-Grade True Cinnamon is best to opt for.
At Gewürzhaus you can find Sri Lankan A-Grade True Cinnamon in its ground form and whole quills. For your more sweet dishes and baking, you’ll also find Cassia (Dutch Cinnamon) as whole bark or ground. Gewürzhaus Cassia is grown in Sumatra and milled in Australia.
How to include cinnamon in your meals
– At breakfast, add cinnamon to porridge, muesli, yoghurt or a smoothie.
– Add to savoury meals such as Moroccan tagines, curries, soups, slow-cooked meats and roast root vegetables for a delightful subtle sweetness.
– Try spicing up your coffee with a sprinkle of cinnamon on top or infuse a cinnamon quill in a cup of tea with fresh ginger for a spicy tea brew.
– For a healthy snack, sprinkle cinnamon over fruit such as apple or banana with some natural peanut butter
– You can also try unique Gewürzhaus recipes using true cinnamon such as Sweet Potato & Lentil Dip and Ceylon Cinnamon Banana Icy Poles (a great summer treat using one teaspoon of cinnamon in place of the sugar for a nutritious snack).
While used as a traditional Ayurvedic remedy for centuries, turmeric has gained enormous attention in recent years for the health benefits of its main active ingredient, curcumin. Curcumin has strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.(7) Much of the research on curcumin is in relation to managing inflammatory conditions and diseases associated with low-grade inflammation, such as arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and heart disease.(8-10)
The curcumin content of pure turmeric is influenced by environmental factors and thus curcumin content can vary between 0.4-7%.
In terms of supporting the immune system, curcumin has been found to have important antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal activities.(10)
When consumed on its own, curcumin has poor bioavailability due to low absorption and rapid metabolism and elimination. However, there are particular ways to enhance curcumin’s bioavailability. Piperine, the active component of black peppercorn, is known to increase the bioavailability of curcumin by 2000%.(11) Curcumin is also fat-soluble, meaning paring turmeric with a source of fat can help to improve its absorption in the body.
At Gewürzhaus you’ll find vivid, earthy and golden turmeric in its ground form, as well as in a number of blends. Turmeric Latte Spice is a notable one to mention, as it contains a blend of turmeric, true cinnamon, ginger and black pepper, providing additional flavour, anti-inflammatory properties and allowing for optimal absorption of the curcumin.
How to include turmeric into your day
– Pure turmeric makes for a great spice to use in curries and through rice
– Spice up your condiments by adding turmeric, such as in a carrot dip or try this Tomato Kasundi
– Swap your afternoon coffee for an anti-inflammatory golden turmeric latte using nothing other than Turmeric Latte Spice. For a summer day, spiced mango lassi or iced turmeric latte also makes for a refreshing drink
– To get the added benefit of black pepper to best absorb curcumin, Turmeric Latte Spice is also great to add to rice or soups
If you’re new to using turmeric, you may like to try it in a spice blend like Caribbean Fish and Scampi, delicious served with a squeeze of fresh lime, or Immunity Blend, which adds a boost to stocks, soups and casseroles.
Ginger is part of the Zingiberaceae family along with turmeric, cardamom and galangal. A very versatile spice, ginger adds just the right amount of spicy kick to soups, marinades, curries, Asian dishes and of course sweets like the infamous gingerbread.
Ever been told to take ginger tablets for nausea and motion sickness? Well, there’s a good reason for this recommendation! Scientific papers have consistently shown that ginger is useful in gastrointestinal health, particularly having benefits for nausea relief.(12) These studies have found that 1-1.5g of ginger (approx. ¾ teaspoon- 1 teaspoon) is an effective amount to reduce nausea and vomiting symptoms caused by pregnancy, chemotherapy, motion sickness and from sport.(12) Ginger has the ability to increase motility (movement) through the stomach and digestive system and reduce intestinal cramping.(12)
It is also known for its anti-inflammatory properties, which have been seen to help with pain management.(13) One study found that both raw and heated ginger helped reduce muscle pain from exercise.(14) The active ingredient in ginger, gingerol, has been reported to have anti-bacterial and antifungal properties.(15) It is these powerful properties of ginger that may help in fighting infections by inhibiting harmful bacteria species.(15)
Gewurhzaus pure ginger comes in two main forms; Ground Ginger and Kibbled Ginger. The ground form is more versatile to use in cooking and baking, while the kibbled ginger is great to infuse into dishes like soups, stews, pickles and of course to make ginger tea, where it is best to remove just before serving.
You’ll see ginger makes its way into many unique tea and spice blends at Gewürzhaus, so ginger-lovers can rejoice with Lemongrass & Ginger Organic Tea, Organic Gingerbread Tea, Gingerbread Spice, Ginger & Garlic Salt, Immunity Blend, Turmeric Latte Spice and Cold & Flu Tea.
Peppermint and Spearmint
Two very common herbs, peppermint and spearmint come from the plant’s mentha pipereta and mentha spicata. Mint is used widely for its fresh minty taste in toothpaste, mints, mouthwash. The active ingredient in mint, menthol, also has a cooling effect which is one of the reasons why it is used widely in products aimed to cleanse the palate and refresh the breath.
Both peppermint and spearmint have been studied in relation to their ability to relieve digestive upset. Peppermint oil has been shown in systematic reviews to significantly improve symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), including abdominal pain.(16–17) In combination with caraway oil, peppermint oil has also been shown to be effective in the treatment of functional dyspepsia, which is a common gastrointestinal condition affecting the upper part of the digestive tract.(18)
Similarly in another study, spearmint used as part of a herbal blend along with bowel medications and fibre was shown to reduce severity and frequency of abdominal pain in people with IBS.(19)
While peppermint and spearmint tea has not been well studied, it’s possible that drinking these herbs in tea may also reduce uncomfortable digestive symptoms.
There have also been some studies looking at the effects of spearmint on female hormones. While the evidence is in early phases here, some studies suggest that drinking spearmint tea may help regulate hormone levels in women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).(20–21)
Spearmint extract may also have benefits on improving working memory and sleep quality in older adults with age-associated memory impairment.(22)
With or without additional health benefits, Gewürzhaus Moroccan Mint Tea makes for a fragrant and refreshing afternoon pick-me-up. This loose-leaf blend contains gunpowder green tea, spearmint, peppermint and rose petal and makes a delicious hot or chilled brew. You’ll also find spearmint in Eva’s Yummy Tummy Tea, for a fresh, floral and calming cuppa.
Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice, and for good reason. Saffron is the stigma plucked from the purple-flowered crocus plant. Each of these flowers contains only three stigmas which must be hand-picked and dried at the right time of day. It only makes sense why it is so expensive!
Saffron has a concentrated woody and earthy flavour and only a tiny amount can deliver a bright golden tone to a whole dish. Saffron also has some very impressive health benefits.
The major constituents in saffron are crocins, crocetin, and safranal, which have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.(23)
Interestingly, a number of studies indicate that saffron may enhance mood and have antidepressant effects. When compared to conventional treatments for depression, saffron supplementation was found in one study to have similar effectiveness for treating mild to moderate depression.[Noorbala] Another study found saffron to be more effective than a placebo in people diagnosed with major depression.(24)
A systematic review also concluded that saffron could be effective to use in depression and anxiety.(25) However, the sample sizes in these studies were quite small, and thus, larger human trials are needed before making firm recommendations for treatment.
Furthermore, saffron supplementation was found to have the same effective benefits as a common pharmaceutical medication for improving symptoms in children with ADHD.(26)
At Gewürzhaus you can find A-Grade and B-Grade saffron threads. Both are great quality, however, the A-grade has a more concentrated flavour and aroma. It makes a beautiful addition to soups, rice and of course paella. Try using saffron in this Spanish Seafood Paella recipe.
Saffron is also found in Gewürzhaus Ras El Hanout, a versatile and traditional Moroccan spice blend.
Read more about saffron and how to use it here.
Using herbs and spices for gut health
Herbs and spices are some of the richest food sources of polyphenols.(27) Polyphenols are types of phytochemicals, (ie. plant-chemicals) which are plant-based compounds that have a number of health benefits for different systems in the body. Thanks to their antioxidant properties, polyphenols help to reduce oxidative damage to the body caused by ageing and help to reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes and cancers.
The benefits of polyphenols extend to gut health as well! With gut health being a very hot topic, you may have heard of the community of beneficial bacteria that live in our gut, known as the gut microbiome. Polyphenols have the ability to fuel a healthy gut microbiome, as they mostly pass through our digestive tract unabsorbed, and up to 95% of polyphenols eaten then make it to the large intestine. The large intestine (colon) is the part of the gut which houses the vast majority of our gut microbiome. These gut bugs use polyphenols as food to produce beneficial effects on the gut. This is what makes polyphenols fall into the category of prebiotics. Studies have shown that they promote the growth of beneficial bacterial species including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.(28)
Gut health also extends beyond the digestive system. Healthy gut microbiome has flow-on effects to other areas of the body including the brain. The gut-brain axis is a two-way communication system that links the gastrointestinal system and the nervous system. Due to this link, an imbalance in the gut microbiome may have impacts on the brain in areas such as mood and cognition. Increasingly, we are seeing research on how changes to the gut microbiome may play a role in the development of neurological disorders.
As polyphenols have the ability to regulate and improve the gut microbiome, consumption of polyphenol-rich food and other prebiotics may act as protective factors for mental health and cognitive disorders.(29)
Herbs and spices are packed full of polyphenols and antioxidants. While almost all contain polyphenols, some of the best sources include cloves, peppermint, star anise, cocoa powder, oregano, celery seed, sage, rosemary, spearmint, thyme and basil.(27)
The great news is that both single and mixed spices have been shown to have positive prebiotic effects on the gut at culinary doses of 5 grams daily. So continue to cook with plenty of herbs and spices and let your gut bugs thrive.(30)
It’s clear that herbs and spices have the potential to add more to food than flavour. Good, nutritious food has the ability to nourish our bodies, and herbs and spices have the ability to bring tradition, culture and additional health benefits to each plate. It’s important to also remember that cooking, creating recipes and sharing food with loved ones can have immeasurable benefits to wellbeing.
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