Many spices are known for their health benefits, some are even consumed as supplements. I have gone over the scientific literature for you in the field. I’m going to talk to you about their health benefits, but also about the origin of their uses in medicine.
Spices are of interest to many people for a variety of reasons. A recent survey in the United States has shown that about 50% of Americans are interested in learning more about the health benefits of spices and using them as traditional or complementary medicines. The vast majority of surveyed participants were able to name 6 or 7 spices commonly known for their health benefits such as ginger, cinnamon or garlic (the three most named). I am convinced that the situation is similar in Canada. The most amazing thing is that spices were used for several other purposes before being used as widely in food.
The use of spices in human history
Spices have been used to season food, but also to color and preserve it, for a longer period of time. Thanks to their health benefits, they have also been used by various traditional medicines, all over the world, to prevent or treat certain types of diseases.
Note that for those who would be interested in spices from the boreal forest, we have a biologist specialized in the subject, with whom I studied biology elsewhere, Mr. Fabien Girard. Fabien has published two books which present spices drawn from the boreal forest and which even contain cooking recipes: Secrets de plantes 1 and Secrets de plantes 2 (French only). I highly recommend his books. The plants are presented in a brilliant way, with descriptions accessible to all and which transpire a deep passion for the nature and biology of the boreal forest. Two little masterpieces.
To return to our spices, the simple definition tells us that it is a vegetal aromatic substance, which comes from either the root, flower, leaf, seed, fruit, or even bark, and used in food to season.
Certain spices were used during the time of the pharaohs, among others during embalming or mummification ceremonies. In ancient times it was used as an offering, as a perfume and for medicinal remedies. Certain medicinal uses are said to have originated from the theories of Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine. Dating from around 400 BC, these theories were based on the idea that human health depended on 4 main concepts: cold, wet, hot and dry. Thus, a spice like a hot pepper, which was hot and dry attributes, could help cure health problems caused by cold and wet. In 400 BC, the majority of illnesses were not even identified and the causes were of course very poorly interpreted.
It was only during the Middle Ages that Europeans began to use spices in cooking. They even became a source of wealth and luxury. Spices imported from Asia and the Middle East were much more valuable. They were a source of prestige. These spices were known for their medicinal properties; considered much more important than those of local European or North American plants. The mysterious origin of spices from the other world increased their value as very high-end products intended for the wealthy people of the time. They were associated with spirituality and the healing of traditional medicines. It reminds me of the Phoenician merchant in The Adventures of Asterix, but now let us talk about the real health benefits.
The health benefits of spices
Some of these spices will contain more than a hundred compounds that can be responsible for health benefits in minute quantities. Our research with Concordia University has led to the identification of new modulators of primary aging, 4 of which come from spices. I can reveal the origin of one of the modulators, presented in our scientific articles published in 2016, 2017 and 2019; it comes from the celery seed. We find celery seed in a wide variety of spices including those in the preparation of the Bloody Caesar.
I will not go over the health benefits for each of the spices, which would require writing a fair book on the subject. Some spices have been studied a lot, such as garlic, and others very little. One very interesting thing is that there are now studies that are looking at the total consumption of spices as a major component of the health benefits of healthy eating. Much like total vegetable consumption, spice consumption would be an indicator of the health benefits of a given type of diet.
Some researchers hypothesize that even for the Mediterranean diet, the most studied diet, and with the best documented and most important benefits, spices would have significant benefits.
A recent study has shown the effect of 6 grams of spices in a single meal on markers of inflammation. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania used a blend of 13 spices (basil, bay leaf, black pepper, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, ginger, oregano, parsley, red pepper, rosemary, thyme, and turmeric). Their work confirms an anti-inflammatory effect for a meal containing 6 grams, but not for the same meal containing 2 grams. I will come back to the importance of quantity later.
In general, studies on the health benefits of spices in food or as supplements, have demonstrated benefits on:
– inflammatory processes,
– reduction of cardiovascular diseases,
– antioxidant effects,
– antimicrobial effects (and modulation of the intestinal microbiota),
– nervous degeneration,
– type II diabetes and
It goes without saying that not all spices and all mixtures of spices will have the same benefits. Some of these benefits, as shown for inflammation, will require larger amounts to consume to reach the effective dose: the dose that provides the health benefit. This dose is often not clearly established.
5 tips to consider in order to benefit fully
Here are some tips on using spices.
- Purchase products from Canada. This is not only to encourage the local economy, but also to ensure the quality of the ingredients. For example, recent studies have shown that some turmeric products contain lead or hepatotoxic molecules. Lead was present because some companies used dyes to improve the color of their spices or extracts. As for the hepatotoxic molecules, they come from the use of the wrong species of the plant. For spices or ingredients in high demand, adulteration is common.
- Use spices to diversify your diet. As much as it is to try recipes from other cultures, as it should be to integrate foods like tofu, legumes or other kinds of fish. If you are interested, we publish diverse recipes on the Vitoli blog that use healthy ingredients and flavors inspired by different cultures.
- Read the ingredients carefully and avoid products that contain preservatives, salt, sugar, sugar replacements or flavor enhancers like monosodium glutamate. Go for the most natural products possible.
- Marinate your meats or vegetables with your spices and olive oil. Olive oil can help extract and better adsorb the fat-soluble molecules, but also, the particularly powerful antioxidants of this oil will help protect the flavors from oxidation during food preparation. In addition to the health benefits of olive oil, you protect the benefits and flavors of your spices.
- Consider the amount consumed. As mentioned earlier, you have to consume a lot of spices to have the benefits mentioned. The amount of the molecule present in a single meal must be high enough to reach the effective dose. Thus, it will be more beneficial to eat certain meals rich in spices, than to eat less spice in all your meals.
I particularly recommend Isabelle Huot’s products. I really like its spices and I especially like the fact that they are local products, of high quality, without additives. Let us encourage Canadian businesses.
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- Prescrire, février 2020. Compléments alimentaires : consommateurs mal protégés !
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