Perryman Nutrition Column: Spice up Your Diet and Do Your Body Good

Note to Reporters: The following column is written by Shirley Perryman, an Extension specialist in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. The department is part of the College of Applied Human Sciences at Colorado State University.

Though spices and herbs are often spoken of as one-in-the-same, they’re not. Spices are aromatic seasonings from the bark, buds, roots, seeds, berries or fruit of various plants and trees. Common spices include cinnamon, which comes from bark; cloves from buds; ginger from a root; cumin from seeds; black peppercorns from berries; and paprika from the fruit of a plant. Herbs, however, only come from the leaf of a plant. Familiar herbs include basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme, parsley, sage and chives.

Spices and herbs offer health benefits in addition to flavoring food, but there are currently no specific recommendations for how much to include in your diet.

Spices and herbs:

• Contribute to lowering sodium intake when used to flavor food in place of salt.

• Offer protective antioxidant benefits by destroying free radicals that can cause cell damage. Spices and herbs carry even higher antioxidant content than fruits and vegetables.

• Provide anti-inflammatory protective benefits against many chronic diseases including heart disease, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

The benefits of combining multiple spices and herbs are often greater than the benefit of a single one. One research study found that turmeric and black pepper together decreased breast cancer stem cells. Herbs and spices added to salad dressing increase the antioxidant content of a vegetable or fruit salad.

When finding ways to add herbs and spices to your diet, using fresh is best, but dried herbs and spices may be more convenient. Fresh herbs have higher antioxidant levels than the dried versions. Fresh garlic, for example, has one and a half times more antioxidants than garlic powder. Replace dried herbs and spices in your kitchen each year to maximize their flavor and health benefits.

Not only will your cuisine taste good when flavored with spices and herbs, it will be good for you. Though the research is still inconclusive in terms of which and how much of a specific herb or spice to include in your diet, be adventurous and try new seasonings.

Here are potential health benefits of several common herbs and spices:

• Curry powder is a golden yellow spice currently gaining a lot of favor. The curcumin in turmeric, the primary ingredient in curry powder, has been shown to reduce the risk of developing diabetes in obese mice. In other animal studies curcumin has been shown to lower the incidence of heart failure and stopping the growth of cancer cells. There is also evidence it may protect against arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease. Perk up chicken salad and steamed rice with a sprinkle of curry powder along with nuts and chopped fresh or dried fruit also considered superfoods.

• Rosemary added to meat marinades may block heterocyclic amine or dangerous carcinogens from forming during cooking. Interestingly, while rosemary was found to cut the HCA in grilled steak by 87 percent, the meat did not have a strong rosemary flavor. The aroma of rosemary has also been linked to improvement of mood and pain management. Add rosemary to sautéed vegetables or sprinkle over baked bread brushed with olive oil.

• Cinnamon stirred into oatmeal, sprinkled on toast or over coffee, or mixed into a streusel topping for a fruit crisp may contribute to lowering blood sugar for those with diabetes or metabolic syndrome from the polyphenols which are naturally present. There is some evidence cinnamon also may help lower triglycerides and cholesterol.

 • Capsaicin in cayenne, crushed red pepper flakes and paprika may be helpful to those looking for a metabolism boost for weight loss. The spicy red peppers in prepared foods may make them less tempting to those prone to overeating and contribute to feelings of satiety. When creating your own spiced dry rub for grilled meats include cayenne or paprika. Sprinkle crushed red pepper flakes over your favorite pizza or add the flakes to your favorite stir fry combination, but use caution in how much you add for maximum enjoyment.