Author(s): Mayara de Paula and Sarah Armes Reviewer(s): Shane McAuliffe and Professor Sumantra (Shumone) Ray
Diet has long been recognised as an important factor influencing our health. Today, fruits and vegetables, protein and healthy fats are at the top of everyone’s mind. One food group often overlooked are spices, those wonderfully colourful powders, seeds, bulbs, and roots that are used to add flavour and colour to the foods we cook and consume all around the world. Spices come from different parts of plants and shouldn’t be confused with herbs which only come from the leaves of the plant (Institute 2022).
Despite spices being used in relatively small quantities in food, spices contain some of the highest concentrations of antioxidants, bioactive compounds, and polyphenols. These compounds have been shown to be protective against inflammation, oxidative stress, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease (affecting the heart or blood vessels) to name a few. We’ve reviewed the research and highlighted the health benefits of some of the most consumed spices:
Black pepper (Piper nigrum L.) is one of the most widely consumed spices worldwide, known for its pungent flavour when added to dishes, but also its ability to enhance the taste of other ingredients (Srinivasan 2007). The main active component of pepper is piperine which has been shown to reduce the time it takes to digest food, act as an antioxidant, enhance the bioavailability of drugs in the body, and possess anti-mutagenic and anti-tumour effects (Takooree et al. 2019).
Belonging to the plant family of lilies, garlic is a type of bulbous plant that originated in central Asia. There are more than 450 varieties, first cultivated over 4000 years ago it is believed to be one of the oldest food flavourings discovered. Today, garlic is as popular as it was millions of years ago. Garlic has a long history of medicinal use with broad health benefits largely due to the presence of sulphur and various compounds including allicin, alliin, and methyl allyl trisulfide (MATS). These compounds have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects even down to modulating inflammatory genes. As well as the active compounds, garlic is also high in B vitamins and vitamin C, making it an ideal nutrient-rich food to add to meals (Mirzavandi et al. 2020).
Ginger is well-known throughout the world and is used extensively in Asian cuisines. Coming from the Zingiber officinale plant, ginger has been used as a traditional remedy for nausea, vomiting and pain. Like most spices, ginger has several compounds with the major ones being gingerol, shogaols, zingiberene, and zingerone (Zhang et al. 2021). In a large comprehensive review of 109 randomised controlled studies, ginger was found to improve chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting (CINV), nausea and vomiting in pregnancy, digestive function, osteoarthritis, pain, cancer risk factor, and metabolic markers including lipid levels, blood pressure and cholesterol levels (Anh et al. 2020).
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum Zeylancium) has been used as a spice and as traditional herbal medicine for centuries, commonly added to beverages, desserts, liqueurs, teas, chicken and lamb dishes, bread, and pastries. Cinnamon exhibits varying levels of cinnamaldehyde, cinnamic acid, coumarin, linalool, eugenol, caryophyllene, and polyphenol polymers. Suggested beneficial health effects include anti-microbial activity, lowering of blood glucose, blood pressure and serum cholesterol, antioxidant properties, anti-inflammatory, wound healing properties and hepato-protective effects (Ranasinghe et al. 2013).
Most of the human research on cinnamon has been undertaken to determine its effectiveness for the treatment of type 1 and/or type 2 diabetes mellitus. These findings are contradictory, yet there is some evidence to support this theory. Multiple clinical trials revealed that cinnamon improved glycaemic indicators (Khan, et al. 2003; Zare, et al. 2019; Lira Neto et al. 2022). Despite this, some studies have demonstrated no effect on glycaemic control and no preventive effect on metabolic diseases (Altschuler, et al. 2007; Talaei, et al. 2017).
Turmeric is a spice that is widely used throughout the Middle East and Asia not only to add flavour and colour to dishes, but also to provide health benefits as a component of traditional medicines. Turmeric is likely the most studied of the spices commonly combined with other spices in Asian cuisines and contains key bioactive curcuminoids, including curcumin. Curcumin, responsible for the vibrant yellow pigmentation, makes up approximately 3.14% of turmeric’s weight and is its main active phytochemical. Curcumin has interested researchers for its medicinal values and variety of biological functions, such as antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and anti-cancer effects (Kunnumakkara et al. 2017). Preliminary evidence from human trials, curcuminoid extracts and other novel formulations may have the potential to help manage symptoms of type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and arthritis. Despite its proposed beneficial properties, several studies have shown that curcumin is poorly absorbed, rapidly metabolized, and rapidly excreted; therefore, it has limited bioavailability (Singletary 2020).
Food for thought
Despite the growing interest in spices and health, most of the evidence available to date stems from animal studies. Another factor to consider is dosage. It is also worth noting that many spices, including those highlighted above, are poorly absorbed. As such, the dosage provided by research studies is usually much higher than the usual quantities of spices used in everyday cooking. Therefore, care should be taken when extrapolating the benefits to humans.
By similar logic, while the proposed benefits of spices include the potential to positively impact on aspects of conditions such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, it is important to state that these compounds should not be considered as a replacement for evidence-based medical therapies. There is also a consideration of drug nutrient interactions with certain spice compounds and their influence on the bioavailability of different drug classes (for example curcumin and the chemotherapy drug acalabrutinib). While many interactions are likely to be dependent on dosage and probably be less likely to provide clinically relevant when consumed as part of a habitual diet, caution is advised if considering supplementation with higher doses (Pilla Reddy, Jo, and Neuhoff 2021).
Despite some of the caveats within the research space, there is no doubt that spices have promising benefits which can be highly relevant in the nutrition space. Aside from the potential health benefits, adding spices to your daily cooking is a sure way to add more colour and flavour!
Our pioneering Mobile Teaching Kitchen programme aiming to empower and educate marginalised communities through nutrition education has released its very own cookbook full of healthy recipes incorporating many wonderful spices. You can grab yours here!
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cinnamon on A1C among adolescents with type 1 diabetes. Diabetes care, 30(4), pp.813-816.
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Eun Goo Lee, Mina Kim, Tae Joon Kim, Yoon Young Yang, Eui Young Son, Sang Jun Yoon, Nguyen Co Diem, Hyung Min Kim, and Sung Won Kwon. 2020. 'Ginger on Human Health: A Comprehensive Systematic Review of 109 Randomized Controlled Trials', Nutrients, 12: 157.
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Photo: Christina Rumpf