Ingredient Science: Spicing Things Up

September 9, 2010
Catherine Morgan

Herbs and spices are used all over the world to add flavor, color, fragrance, and a little bit of “zing” to our foods. Without them, our meals might be bland, and our palates, disheartened. But the story doesn’t end there. Research suggests that as well as being able to boost flavor, several herbs and spices also offer benefits to our health.

 

Herbs and spices are used all over the world to add flavor, color, fragrance, and a little bit of “zing” to our foods. Without them, our meals might be bland, and our palates, disheartened. But the story doesn’t end there. Research suggests that as well as being able to boost flavor, several herbs and spices also offer benefits to our health.

What’s in a Name?
Generally speaking, the leaves of plants that are added to foods (e.g., thyme, mint, and basil) are referred to as culinary herbs, while any other parts of the plants, such as seeds (e.g., nutmeg), berries (e.g., peppercorns), buds (e.g., cloves), bark (e.g., cinnamon), roots (e.g., ginger), and even the flower stigma (e.g., saffron), are referred to as spices. As demonstrated by coriander, some plants can even produce herbs (fresh leaves) and spices (dried seeds).

A Step Back in Time
The history of herbs and spices is most certainly a colorful one, and no other commodity has played a more pivotal role in the development of modern civilization. These plants have been used since the earliest times for flavoring and preserving foods (and masking the taste of foods that were far from fresh), for embalming the dead, for religious rituals, and, of course, for promoting well-being. Indeed, records indicate that our ancestors have been taking advantage of the medicinal properties of herbs and spices for thousands of years.

Ancient Egyptian papyri, which date back to 1555 BCE, document the use of several herbs and spices, including juniper, coriander, cumin, garlic, fennel, and thyme. Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, reportedly had more than 300 remedies in his repertoire that would have included a range of herbs and spices. Even to this day, many people throughout the world continue to rely on traditional therapies based on medicinal plants, herbs, and spices to meet their healthcare needs.

Packing a Punch
Herbs and spices have traditionally been used to treat a wide variety of ailments, ranging from digestive complaints, toothache, and headaches to cancer, infection, and inflammatory disorders. In more recent times, the purported benefits of herbs and spices have been put to the test, and some positive findings have been observed.

Here, we take a look at some of the reported health-promoting properties of eight commonly used herbs and spices.

Cayenne pepper
Capsaicin (from the genus Capsicum) is the compound responsible for the intense heat associated with cayenne pepper. This component is considered to have cardiovascular benefits and may be an effective pain reliever and digestive aid. There are also suggestions that cayenne pepper might increase basal metabolic rate and stimulate fat-burning ability.

Cinnamon
Although results have been mixed, cinnamon (from the genus Cinnamomum) has been shown to reduce fasting blood sugar levels, as well as triglycerides, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and total cholesterol in patients with type 2 diabetes. It is also thought to have antimicrobial and antioxidative action. Active components in the essential oils found in cinnamon bark include cinnamaldehyde, cinnamyl acetate, and cinnamyl alcohol.

Coriander
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) is purported to have digestive benefits, anticancer activity, antimicrobial properties, and cholesterol-lowering effects. Researchers have identified a number of cancer chemoprotective phytochemicals in members of the Umbelliferaefamily, to which coriander belongs, including coumarins, phthalides, polyacetylenes, and terpenoids.

Ginger
Ginger (from the genus Zingiberaceae)has been used as a natural remedy to alleviate symptoms of gastrointestinal distress and nausea (including those associated with motion sickness and pregnancy). It is also thought to have antioxidative, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial effects. Gingerols are pungent constituents of ginger which may contribute to its medicinal properties.

Saffron
Saffron (from Crocus sativus) has been shown to have cancer chemopreventive, antioxidative, and hypolipaemic effects. Preliminary studies have also demonstrated the beneficial effects of saffron extract and, specifically, its active constituent crocin, on learning and memory retention.

Sage
Sage (Salvia officinalis) has been used traditionally as a remedy for colds, sore throats, and other respiratory ailments. Research has also highlighted the neuroprotective potential of sage and its active ingredient rosmarinic acid against amyloid-induced toxicity, which could validate its traditional use in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

Thyme
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) has been shown to possess antimicrobial, antioxidative, antispasmodic, and carminative actions. It may also be used as an antiseptic agent when applied topically. The volatile oil components of thyme include geraniol, borneol, carvacrol, and thymol.

Turmeric
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is reported to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidative, antimicrobial, and antitumor effects. Its active principle, curcumin, is thought to be responsible for some of the medicinal properties attributed to this spice.

Herbs and spices can be functional as well as flavorful, doing more for us than just tickling our taste buds. In fact, our own spice racks might even satisfy our search for the latest functional food or “superfood”-buzzwords in today’s health-conscious society. Because there are literally thousands of herbs and spices to choose from, there’s just one thing to remember-variety really is the spice of life.