Think the cumin seeds and turmeric powder in your aloo gobi are all taste and no nutrition? Think again.
Recent research reveals that common herbs and spices such as cinnamon, turmeric powder, and garlic ward off diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and are essential to maintaining good health.
Ryan Bradley, a naturopathic physician at Bastyr University in Seattle, Wash., says it is not surprising that herbs have healing ingredients, since the entire system of medicine in Indian and Chinese practice has been based on natural products.
“In India and many Asian cultures, there exists more of a traditional method of using natural ingredients in their foods,” Bradley explains. “A lot of herbal medicine has been found in food in those countries.”
Bradley says that modern medicine has begun researching the properties of these culinary herbs and spices in the last 15 to 20 years.
“Well, viola!” exclaims Wendy Bazilian, doctor of Public Health, registered dietitian in San Diego, and author of the book, The SuperFoodsRx Diet: Lose Weight with the Power of Super Nutrients. “Strong antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds and other active plant nutrients called phytonutrients, some of them we’re starting to identify as cancer fighting or with metabolism-boosting properties.”
Bradley, who specializes in diabetes and cardiovascular care, says that most herbs and spices either reduce blood sugar and blood pressure, or prevent diabetes and heart disease because they have anti-inflammatory properties that fight inflammation in the blood vessels, liver, and the heart itself.
He adds that fenugreek, for example, helps lower blood pressure in people who have diabetes, and also helps in regulating the pancreas. Garlic, he adds, is most effective in lowering blood pressure.
“Herbs and spices like turmeric or yellow curry powder, ginger, and red pepper actually have strong antioxidant properties,” says Bazilian. “Half a teaspoon of ginger has the same antioxidants as a cup of broccoli. It also reduces inflammation, and preserves brain health as we age.”
Bradley adds that turmeric or curcumin is a potent anti-inflammatory ingredient that either isolates or creates cancer cell death and reduces inflammation.
“It appears to protect the liver from extra iron absorption in people who have an issue with storing iron,” he says. “It protects against an iron overload. There’s a process when oils are cooked, they become oxidized. Turmeric appears to reduce the inflammatory response from eating these cooked oils.”
Cumin seeds, Bazilian adds, primarily aid in digestion but also have strong anti-oxidant properties that fight against stomach and liver tumors.
She also says there is a correlation between ginger and muscle pain reduction, whereas cinnamon has been found to be beneficial in lowering blood sugar levels in diabetics.
Herbs like cilantro, thyme, and oregano, Bazilian says, help reduce heavy metal toxicity in the body, alleviate respiratory conditions and have antibacterial and antimicrobial properties, respectively.
Black pepper, she explains, is an anti-inflammatory agent that’s also been found to enhance the benefits of the foods it is added to.
Besides the many benefits of using herbs and spices in our foods, Bradley and Bazilian agree that adding herbs and spices to one’s foods reduces our intake of salt, sugar and fats, further aiding in preventing diseases and in maintaining good health.
“We have an evolutionary drive for (salt, sugar, and fats) because they weren’t found naturally in foods in high levels for a very long time, and we needed small amounts for biological survival,” adds Bazilian. “It’s also an acquired taste for our tongue. The more salt and sugar we use, the more we need to be able to taste them.”
The current recommended limit for salt consumption, Bradley and Bazilian say, is 2,400 mg per person per day, although both recommend closer to 1,500 mg. And both agree that we are currently consuming twice the recommended amount of salt—about 3,500 to 4,000 mg.
As for fats and sugars, Bradley recommends a diet of 1,500-1,800 calories per person per day, and 40-50 percent of those calories come from complex carbohydrates, and 20-30 percent from fats.“Fats should come from lean meats like poultry and fish, nuts, avocado, low-fat dairy, and good oils like olive oil,” he says.
“There really is no recommended intake for sugar, the less the better. Even drinking one sugar-sweetened beverage per day will increase ones risk for developing diabetes.”
Bradley adds that herbs and spices naturally complement our food by sweetening the flavor and changing the character of the food.
Sowmya Nath is a freelance journalist based in Baltimore, Md.