Herbs and spices are integral in cooking, adding flavour, aroma and even colour and texture. Beyond their culinary uses, herbs and spices are nutritious and even have therapeutic benefits, used for centuries in traditional herbal medicine and now being studied scientifically and harnessed for their healing powers.
But what is the difference between a herb and a spice? Quite simply, a herb is the green, leafy part of the plant while a spice are the woody bits and roots. This could be the bark (cinnamon), the root (ginger and turmeric), the seed (fennel) or part of the flower (saffron).
Spices are often dried and then used whole or ground down to a fine powder. You may also harvest both a herb and a spice from the same plant -- think coriander leaves and seeds. Spices are concentrated sources of essential oils, nutrients and chemical compounds. It's no wonder they are yielding treatments for ailments, ranging from mild in the case of nausea to severe illnesses, such as cancers.
Here are a few widely used spices, languishing in most spice racks, which have potent health benefits:
I'm sure we all have a bottle of ground cinnamon in the cupboard and probably whole cinnamon sticks too. Invaluable in baking and used in most global cuisine, cinnamon has emerged as a powerful antioxidant spice, natural food preservative and is even being used to manage Type 2 Diabetes.
Cinnamon adds a sweet intense flavour to foods like porridge and fruit crumbles, replacing the need for sugar. Studies have shown that cinnamon helps regulate blood sugar and insulin levels.
One of the first clinical trials showed a 20-fold increase in glucose metabolism when using cinnamon. Mixing cinnamon with high carb foods can help prevent spikes in insulin levels. An excellent example of this would be baking, where you can easily add a bit of ground cinnamon which can offset the negative effects of the white flour and sugar.
There are several varieties of cinnamon available, some with a more intense flavour and aroma.
There are some arguments that the more pungent species, such as Saigon cinnamon, have greater health benefits. I bought a bottle of Saigon cinnamon and it is indeed very intense and aromatic, but studies show that all types of cinnamon have health benefits, so do use whatever you have in the kitchen.
I add cinnamon to all kinds of baking and even savoury dishes such as tagines and chilli con carne. On a daily basis, I sprinkle cinnamon on my porridge or dissolve it in plain yoghurt. No need for added sugar and I feel that I'm doing something good.
The intense orange yellow pigment known as curcumin, contains the most concentrated of the anti-inflammatory properties that is the subject of several clinical trials. Curcumin is a powerful anti-inflammatory comparable in effectiveness to some prescription and over the counter medications.
Clinical studies yielded promising results for curcumin in treating the symptoms of inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn's and ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis and cystic fibrosis. Curcumin also shows powerful antioxidant benefits in certain types of cancers -- breast, prostate, lung and colon cancers -- by inhibiting the growth of tumours and also improving liver function.
This super spice also has excellent cardiovascular benefits by lowering LDL cholesterol and preventing the oxidation of cholesterol in the arteries, which is what causes the narrowing of the arteries and increases the risk of heart attacks.
Curcumin is being studied as a preventative for Alzheimer's Disease. The mechanism by which it works is quite complicated as it does so in several ways: by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation and also preventing plaques between the nerve cells, which interferes with brain function.
Turmeric is in curry powder blends which you can use in creative ways, such as a dressing for chicken coronation salad or in egg mayonnaise. A traditional South African recipe is to add a teaspoon of ground turmeric, a cinnamon stick and two tablespoons of raisins to a pot of rice before you start cooking. This turmeric rice has a fabulous colour and the sweetness from the raisins and cinnamon are delicious with a lamb or pork roast.
Ginger is a wonderfully warming spice, especially in winter warmer dishes or a steaming mug of ginger tea. It is used for treating nausea, motion sickness and stomach upsets. In the Obstetric and Gynaecology Journal, ginger was shown to be a safe treatment for nausea and vomiting experienced during pregnancy, with no side effects. While not every woman will get sufficient relief from taking ginger, it is at least reassuring that it is a safe remedy.
Increasingly, ginger is being used as a effective anti-inflammatory for osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Another bonus is that ginger does not cause gastrointestinal upset which many pharmaceutical anti-inflammatories do.
While not a cure, studies show that the active ingredient in ginger, gingerol, does provide some relief for the pain associated with these conditions. It is most effective in milder conditions, such as aching knee joints, which are also aggravated in cold weather. The good news is that dried ginger is almost as effective as the fresh root, so enjoy it in cooking, as a fresh or dried tea -- even candied ginger will have benefits.
Fennel seeds impart a mild anise flavour to cooking and make a pleasant tasting tea that is effective in reducing flatulance and bloating.
This is a safe and gentle natural remedy that may prove useful over the festive season with the overindulgence in rich foods that you wouldn't normally eat.
Fennel is a widely used galactagogue with nursing mothers drinking fennel tea or a tea blend with fennel to boost breast milk production. A small amount of the active ingredient might pass to your baby, thereby also soothing infant colic.
For post Christmas excess, fennel could be useful to shed the festive spread. It has been proven to be effective as a weight loss aid as it helps reduce cravings and balance blood sugar. Fennel also contains melatonin, which is a natural substance which aids a good night's sleep. Sufficient sleep has many benefits, one of which is a healthy waistline. Sleep deprivation has been linked to an increase in insulin resistance which is a precursor to weight gain and possibly Type 2 Diabetes.
Moroccan Spice Blend
This is the ideal recipe to use up bits and bobs of dried spices that you may have in the cupboards. The flavours are very well balanced and will enhance salmon, chicken, lamb and veggie dishes. Even simply sprinkled over roasted vegetables or stirred through quinoa or couscous. You can also make up small jars of it and give it away as a festive foodie gift, with serving suggestions to ensure that it gets used!
* 2tsp ground cumin
* 2tsp ground coriander
* 2tsp paprika
* 2tsp ginger
* 2tsp cinnamon
* 1tsp ground white pepper
* 1tsp ground turmeric
* 1tsp fennel seeds, ground
* 1/4tsp chilli powder
* 1/4tsp ground nutmeg
Carefully measure out all the spices into a clean jar with a tight-fitting lid. Give it a good shake and store in a cool, dark place. If the spices are new, use within six months.