Ginger, turmeric, nutmeg, cinnamon, saffron, black pepper – they may be sitting neatly in your spice rack but many would fit well in your medicine cabinet. Spices have been used to treat and prevent disease and ailments for over 4,000 years. They have also been used to enhance beauty and vitality as well as adding a zing to food, peppering our thirst, exciting our senses and tempting us to try new flavours.
Many of us are looking for natural ways to strengthen our immunity and pack ourselves with vitamins to guard against illness. One obvious way is to take a closer look at the foods we eat and the products we use. Spices are a prescription to immunity and act as powerful health-protecting barriers for our lifestyle and improving well-being.
According to medical experts, spicy foods not only gratify our taste buds but also quicken the metabolism by increasing the heart rate and subsequently our temperature due the chemical called capsaicin. Many spices are packed full of healthy compounds, rich in phytochemicals which are healthful plant chemicals. They fight inflammation and reduce damage to our body’s cells.
Feeling nauseous, suffer from motion sickness or have a cold? Ginger is the spice for you, a popular home remedy. Antioxidants and other nutrients in ginger may also help prevent or treat arthritis, inflammation and various types of infection. In India, ginger is commonly made into a paste to relieve a headache by placing it on the temples while in Japan it is used to help blood circulation.
Recipes handed down by our grandparents include a spicy ingredient or two. Those home-made cookies flavoured with cinnamon and a cinnamon stick to stir in a hot toddy to relieve a cold. Physicians from the middle ages used cinnamon to help treat a cough, hoarseness and sore throats while ancient Egyptians used it as part of their embalming rituals. It’s one of the oldest and most popular spices. Ceylon cinnamon is traditionally harvested from a tree that is native to Sri Lanka. It has a beneficial effect on glucose metabolism and body weight, and contains antioxidants called proanthocyanidins, which are also found in grapes and green tea.
This spice owes its origins to Kerala in India and is considered to be the ‘king of spices’. It has carminative properties which help to reduce discomfort and gas build-up in the intestines and its active compounds have a role in boosting white blood cells which the body uses to fight off invading bacteria and viruses. Scattering Black Pepper on your food helps to stimulate hydrochloric acid in the stomach to aid digestion and absorb food. Pepper was used by the Greeks, Romans and Chinese for medicinal purposes and in medieval times it was used as currency when it was known as black gold.
Nutmeg is a spice present in many kitchens worldwide. Its warm, nutty flavour pairs well with many foods, making it a popular ingredient in sweet and savoury dishes as well as in mulled wine and chai tea. Although it’s more often used for its flavour than its health benefits, nutmeg contains an impressive variety of powerful compounds that may help prevent disease and promote overall health. This spice can help to soothe indigestion, detoxify the body, boost skin health, reduce insomnia and improve blood circulation.
Popular in Spanish dishes such as paella, Saffron contains a wide range of nutrients including vitamin C, potassium, folic acid and calcium. It’s an antioxidant and fights the free radical damage that leads to health conditions like cancer and heart disease. One variety of Saffron is grown in Castilla-La Mancha, a region in central Spain while another is grown exclusively on Azerbaijan’s Absheron Peninsula. It is usually grown in small quantities on farm fields and is the most expensive spice in the world.
If it’s a rich mustard-yellow colour, it has to be turmeric. This spice is known for its anti-inflammatory properties as well as its ability to help fight depression and act as an antiseptic. According to experts at the Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Centre, turmeric can help inhibit the growth of cancer cells throughout the body. Turmeric grows wild in the forests of South and Southeast Asia, where it is collected for use in the classical Ayurvedic Indian medicinal treatment. It is often referred to as the world’s most well-known superfood spice.
Exotic, sensuous, pungent. There are many descriptive notes to describe the flavours and aromas of spices, recipes and dishes from destinations and distant lands. The luminous orange of saffron transports us to flamencos and fiestas of Spain and the gigantic steel pans laden with paella. A madras curry conjures up images of the vivid colours and hustle and bustle of India, the silky saris, Bollywood and rickshaws. And there are images of the spice markets of Morocco, the maze of alleyways packed high with colourful spices and vendors competing for trade. Spices not only link us to travel routes but bring us a natural source of health benefits and maybe a few more items to add to our medicine cabinet!
The History of Spices
In the 16th century, the Moluccas in Indonesia were nicknamed the “Spice Islands”. This was due to the large number of aromatic plants that grew on this archipelago. Spices dig deep into our history when they were traded for their medicinal purposes and flavours from many corners of the world. The lack of refrigeration and poor standards of hygiene meant that food often spoiled quickly so spices were in great demand to mask the flavour of food that was far from fresh. The value of spices was determined not only by their taste and status as luxury items, but also their medical properties. Spices were believed to have important medical qualities and were ingredients in medieval pharmaceuticals and are just as important to our health today.
Tips to add spices to your diet
Sprinkle turmeric on various savoury dishes to help ease irritable bowel syndrome, reduce joint pain and boost immunity. Swap a cappuccino for a turmeric latte
Try blending equal quantities of freshly peeled garlic and ginger and keep in the fridge to use to flavour soups and stems.
Cook or make drinks with fresh ginger to reduce inflammation for conditions such as rheumatism and heart disease. Add fresh ginger to your water to sip throughout the day.
Grind lots of black pepper on food to help your body absorb more nutrients.
A word of caution
With any health problem it is always better to check with your GP to ensure it is safe to take spices for medicinal purposes.