When it comes to super-foods, some of the most potent sources out there already exist in your spice rack. Spices and herbs have a history of extraordinary health benefits. Today, such spices are increasingly more valued for their health qualities than their culinary appeal.
Because of the hype around some more exotic spices, there’s been an increased interest in using them for these inherently amazing benefits. This is where we begin to consider the efficacy of spices. It’s good to know why they are so good instead of just following the latest health fad.
Turmeric, Ginger, Black pepper, cayenne pepper, paprika and chili are all different types of commonly used spices. They are a staple in most people’s kitchens. In the case of black pepper, it is also extremely common as a table top condiment. So it’s easy to agree that these spices are considered delicious by a vast majority of people. Taste has nothing to do with health so it’s fair to assume most people don’t consider the health factor of a given spice. But what if spices were just as, if not more useful to your general health than to your taste buds?
Turmeric is a root with… well… ancient roots. Its aroma and potent flavor are almost incomparable to anything else. Its deep, steadfast pigment has extended its application beyond food, seeing it used as a textiles dye and decorative paint. For hundreds of generations, turmeric has been a mainstay in eastern culinary and ceremonial culture. The root which is in fact a rhizome (underground plant stalk) has also been coveted for its medicinal and invigorative qualities. It sits in the same league as ginger which we will discuss later. Interestingly enough, both ginger and turmeric come from the same plant family.
Curcumin is the active ingredient in turmeric. It gives it the potent aromatic kick and deep bright amber color so commonly associated with the spice. More importantly, curcumin is where turmeric’s health and healing properties emanate from. It is known as a phytochemical (plant derived chemical chemical).
Curcumin is a powerful anti-inflammatory. It decreases inflammation caused by disease and injury and consequently, has analgesic (pain relief) properties. Curcumin, if used correctly, has been shown to be a more potent anti-inflammatory than many pharmaceutical NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) including ibuprofen. For this reason, patients with NSAID allergies can take comfort in doing it the natural way. Curcumin is also an effective antioxidant and heavy metal detoxifier.
First up is black pepper. Chances are you’ve come across it at least once today, perhaps ground some on your breakfast, lunch or dinner. What most people don’t know is that hidden in the goodness of that smoky aroma is a few potent qualities. Black pepper is the ground form of pepper corns. These are the dried variant of a specially grown berry. Once picked, the berries are dried and roasted. They are then sold as whole peppercorns or pre-ground and sold in spice shakers.
Black pepper has been used throughout history as an ingredient and a traditional medicinal compound. The lesser known medicinal uses of black pepper have become more recognized. Black pepper contains a special compound called piperine. Piperine is an alkaloid that gives black pepper it’s fiery, smoky flavor. It is also this chemical responsible for its numerous health benefits.
Piperine is a common supplement when it comes to increasing bioavailability of certain nutrients. For example, curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric (another super spice) has an increased absorption of up to 2000% when combined with piperine. This is why it is advised to combine black pepper and turmeric, especially when being taken for health purposes. Other key nutrients whose absorption is increased by piperine include selenium, vitamin B6 and several amino acids.
Piperine has also been shown to possess thermogenic properties, acting as a metabolic enhancer. This means black pepper can be considered a natural fat burner. Many weight loss supplements and so called fat burners contain piperine to this end.
One important thing to note concerning black pepper, is that unlike most other peppers, it is not a part of the capsicum family.
Ginger is the second root, or rather rhizome-based spice on this menu. It is closely related to the aforementioned turmeric, with some overlapping qualities including antioxidant and anti-inflammatory efficacy. Ginger is also known for its trademark aroma. This can be attributed to its constituent phytochemical, gingerol. A dose of gingerol can solve an upset stomach or alleviate the onslaught of indigestion.
Gingerol has been shown to manage blood sugar levels in people at risk of type two diabetes. And for people already suffering from type 2 diabetes, ginger has been proven to lower their fasting blood sugar levels drastically. When it comes to keeping your blood in check, gingerol helps fight hypertension (high blood pressure) and has profound benefits in lowering cholesterol levels.
In men, ginger’s qualities are known to boost natural testosterone production. This has many runoff benefits, such as increased mood, better bone and muscle density, a boost in metabolism and sex drive and a decrease in body fat.
Ginger is widely used to fight infections including the common cold. This is due to gingerol’s anti-inflammatory and alkalizing effects, making your body inhospitable for bad germs.
Cayenne pepper is another popular seasoning. Made from the grounds of the dried red cayenne chili pepper. Unlike black pepper, cayenne is a capsicum, a completely different family from black pepper.
Cayenne pepper healing properties lie in the special chemical capsaicin. This chemical is ironically meant as a defense mechanism. The burning irritation experienced when it comes in contact with the skin is meant as a deterrent. But inherent in this chemical repellent are some powerful medicinal qualities.
It is an analgesic. Meaning it helps relieve pain. Often infused into topical creams and ointments for relief of rashes and painful skin conditions. Conditions including psoriasis and eczema can be relieved using capsaicin. The health effect of pepper use in these regards also extends to its metabolic qualities. Capsaicin is also known to boost metabolism, a key factor in weight loss. Due to this, it is often heralded as a natural fat burner. Cayenne pepper also has tremendous benefits for sufferers of diabetes, helping regulate insulin sensitivity.
Paprika is a popular ingredient in many eastern and western dishes. The red spice is extracted from a round pepper of the same name. The rich red pigment of paprika has lent itself as a textiles dye. This pigment also contains numerous disease fighting nutrients.
The antioxidant profile of paprika puts in on par with what many deem as “super-foods”. These antioxidants come as carotenoids. They help stave off oxidative stress caused by free radicals which cause cellular damage. This damage accelerates the aging process. In a sense, you could say that paprika is an anti-aging agent.
Paprika also contains vitamin A. This essential nutrient is responsible for maintaining good eyesight along with the lutein and zeaxanthin contained inside. Paprika consumption helps keep your eyes sharp and focused. The health effect of pepper use wins again.
Aside from the wonderful fragrances and delicious flavors, spices are remarkable health heroes. The health benefits are available for anyone and everyone to take advantage. Next time you have a sniff or a cough, reach for the spice rack instead of the medicine cabinet.