Don’t you just love how happy your taste buds feel when you use spices to season your foods? WE DO TOO! Believe it or not, spices are not only great for flavor, but they are great for health too! In this article, you will learn about the history of spices, differences between herbs and spices, how to use spices for health, and some helpful tips for adding them to your recipes!
History of Spices
Spices have been around for millennia! Most of the spices that we know of and use today originated from the Middle East, Asia, and the Mediterranean. (1) These regions used spices for both healing and culinary purposes dating back well before the common era. (2)
Spices were held in high reverence when they were first discovered; ancient societies knew there was something special about spices long before research studies were ever conducted.
With today’s modern science, there is strong evidence to support that spices do indeed contain compounds that are beneficial for health. Keep reading to find out some of the benefits of spices in food!
What are spices?
The FDA defines spices as:
“aromatic vegetable substances, in the whole, broken, or ground form, whose significant function in food is seasoning rather than nutrition.”
Simply put, spices are the dried parts of plants that are used in small quantities to flavor food. Spices come from many different plant parts: roots (ginger, turmeric), rhizomes, stems, leaves, bark (cinnamon), flowers (saffron), fruits/berries (black pepper, chili powder), and seeds (cumin, nutmeg). (3, 4) A wide variety of spices provide a wide range of flavors!
Spices vs. Herbs: What’s the difference?
Spices and herbs both come from plants, so how are they different? While spices come from dried parts of the plant, herbs come from the fresh parts of the plant. For example, the herb cilantro comes from the leaf part of the plant, while coriander is the seed and spice that grows cilantro!
Fresh herbs are great for garnishing and should be added to dishes towards the end of cooking for optimal flavor. (5) Herbs can also be dried. Dried herbs are not as flavorful as fresh herbs, so keep that in mind when replacing fresh for dried in a recipe. Dried herbs should be added at the beginning of cooking so that they have time to rehydrate and develop flavor.
Spices can withstand longer cooking times as well, but be careful not to leave them on dry heat for more than a minute, or else they will burn and turn bitter.
When comparing flavor profiles, spices tend to have stronger flavors than herbs. For example, you may notice that if you add too much cayenne pepper to a dish, you may end up coughing a little bit, but adding more fresh basil than the recipe calls for does not make that big of a difference. (6)
Spices and herbs are healthy seasonings that create a delicious balance of flavors and are great for cooking. Use a combination of both herbs and spices in your favorite dishes for best flavor and nutrition!
The importance of herbs and spices extends beyond just flavor; both provide health benefits as well!
For this specific article, we will not go into the health benefits of herbs (though there are many!), but here are some common herbs that can be found in most grocery stores in both fresh and dried forms.
What are the best spices for health? All spices have health benefits and it is important to get a variety into your diet! Here are 10 common spices; we will highlight the health benefits of 5 of these common spices.
- Black Pepper
- Cayenne Pepper
- Chili Powder
- Garlic Powder
- Onion Powder
Let’s first talk about some general health benefits of spices. Then, we will touch on some cooking, buying and storage tips!
Health Benefits of Spices
All spices have compounds in them that protect us from diseases. Here are some general health benefits of spices:
- Antioxidant properties
- Glucose-lowering effects
- Appetite control
- Weight maintenance (7)
Together, spices’ benefits for health may help lower the risk of developing the following chronic diseases: cardiovascular diseases, neurodegenerative diseases, chronic inflammation, cancer , obesity, and type 2 diabetes. (8)
Spices Can Help Reduce Sodium Intake
The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming less than 2300 milligrams of sodium per day. That is the equivalent of just one teaspoon! YES, you read that correctly!
You may not keep track of the amount of sodium you eat, but it is important to note that there are health risks of consuming too much sodium. A diet high in sodium can lead to high blood pressure, and high blood pressure is a major cause of cardiovascular disease. Reducing sodium intake can significantly reduce heart disease risk. (9)
Sodium is found in many processed and pre-made foods, so by cooking and eating more at home, you get to control the amount of sodium in your diet! (10) One easy and tasty way to reduce sodium in your diet is to use more spices to season your foods! People who prepare their meals at home with herbs and spices are more likely to reduce sodium intake. (11, 12)
Spices add unique flavors to recipes, and by just swapping out a little sodium here and there for your favorite spices, you can take control of your health through food!
To learn more about the food’s powerful properties, check out our Food as Medicine article!
5 Common Spices Health Benefits
Fun fact: You may be wondering why such a common spice like black pepper is the first spice on the list. It is because we sprinkle a dash of pepper on so many things that we cook! Pepper is the most sold spice in the United States. (13) Pepper sits alongside salt most of the time and pretty much lives on all of our kitchen tables.
Health Benefits: Piperine has antioxidant effects, which means that it can protect us from harmful compounds that damage our bodies. (16) Antioxidants keep our bodies healthy and fight off disease.
- Black pepper can be bought whole, cracked, or ground. Whole peppercorns have the strongest flavor. Freshly cracked pepper has a more powerful flavor than pre-ground pepper.
- Black pepper is typically used in savory dishes, though some homemade chai tea recipes use whole peppercorns.
Fun Fact: A cinnamon tree can grow up to a whopping 60 feet tall! (17)
Flavor: Cinnamon has a sweet, musty, and woody flavor. The compound that gives cinnamon its spicy flavor is cinnamaldehyde. (18)
Health Benefits: Cinnamaldehyde has anti-diabetic and glucose-lowering effects. These effects may promote steady blood sugar levels after a meal. (19)
- Cinnamon is a flavor enhancer and is great for garnishing desserts and beverages.
- Cinnamon is typically used in breakfasts and baked dishes, but is also common in savory Mexican, Moroccan, and Middle Eastern dishes.
Fun Fact: Turmeric has become a very popular spice over the last several years. Much of its recent popularity has come from its proven ability to reduce arthritic pain and inflammation. Turmeric is in the same botanical family as ginger.
Flavor: The flavors of turmeric are bitter, earthy, minty, musty, and woody. The compounds in turmeric that give it its vibrant, yellow color are called curcuminoids. (20)
Health benefits: Turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties. (21, 22) Moderate acute inflammation is fine, but chronic inflammation increases your risk of developing chronic diseases. To maximize turmeric’s health benefits, combine with black pepper. Black pepper increases turmeric’s bioavailability up to 2000%!
- Turmeric is often paired with warm spices such as cinnamon, black pepper, and ginger.
- Turmeric is often found in mustard, pickles, relish chutneys, rice, butter, and cheese to enhance color and flavor.
- Curry is a common dish that uses turmeric.
- Tip: Turmeric can stain kitchen equipment! To combat this, coat utensils with mineral oil or clean with baking soda, soap, and hot water.
Fun Fact: Cayenne pepper is a type of chili pepper. The compound found in cayenne pepper, capsaicin, is the active ingredient in pepper spray. Yikes! Cayenne is a strong pepper!
Flavor: Cayenne pepper has a hot and fiery flavor. Capsaicin is responsible for cayenne’s spicy flavor. Not all cayenne peppers are alike; spice levels depend on the amount of capsaicin in the pepper. (23)
Health benefits: Cayenne pepper may have anti-obesogenic effects, as it can potentially boost metabolism and suppress appetite. (24)
- Cayenne pepper adds great flavor to sauces, meat marinades, and traditional Mexican dishes such as tacos, enchiladas, and fajitas.
- If using cayenne pepper on dry heat, be sure to not cook it for too long. Not only will this create a bitter flavor, but it can cause your eyes to burn too!
Fun Fact: Ginger is one of the most used spices in the world. Many global cuisines regularly use large amounts of ginger in dishes.
Flavor: Ginger has a citrusy, musty, soapy, hot, and bitter flavor. (25)
Health benefits: The active compounds in ginger are called oleoresins and are beneficial for improving digestion and relieving nausea. (26)
- In savory applications, ginger pairs well with garlic, red pepper, coriander, cumin, and turmeric, and is often found in curry powder blends.
- Ginger is also great for baking and is commonly used in apple and peach pies along with cinnamon and cloves.
Spices Cooking Tips
Learning how to cook with spices can help improve their palatability. Here are our top tips for cooking with spices:
- When using spices in sauces, spreads, dressings, batters, or doughs, whisk either with the wet ingredients or dry ingredients first for even distribution.
- If you are unsure about the flavor of a spice, start with less and add more to taste.
- When doubling a recipe, don’t double the spices at first. Doubling the spices can often overpower the dish or create a bitter flavor. Again, you can always start with less and then add more to taste.
- If cooking on a stovetop, cook spices on dry heat for 30-60 seconds max, otherwise the spices can burn and taste bitter. Then add liquid or other ingredients. However, if liquid is already present in the pan (such as a sauce, soup, or stock), you don’t have to worry about burning or bitterness.
- To enhance the flavor of spices, bloom them first in oil before adding other ingredients in a recipe. Heat oil and ground or whole spices over medium-low heat until fragrant.
How to Purchase Spices
- As spices age, they lose some of their flavor, so if you know that you won’t use a lot of a certain spice, purchase a small quantity. The bulk section at many grocery stores can help you purchase smaller quantities.
- For more complex spice flavors, buy whole spices and then grind them as needed. If you don’t have a spice grinder, an electric coffee grinder often works!
- Instead of buying pre-made spice blends, create your own! This can help you save money and reduce sodium intake.
Spices Storage Tips
Store spices out of sunlight and in dry areas of your kitchen. A rotating spice rack on your kitchen counter can be a great reminder to incorporate more spices into your recipes! Store spices in glass containers with tight fitting lids to preserve quality.
Incorporating spices into your favorite dishes as well as new recipes is an easy way to improve your health! Consuming a variety of spices is ideal, and we encourage you to try some spices that you may have never tried before. And as always, remember to use spices to YOUR taste!
What spices do you plan to try? We’d love to hear in the comments section below!
Lauren Jackson, Dietetic Intern