Cold winter days can make you crave comfort and warmth, sitting cross-legged on the couch with a piping hot bowl of curry. But did you know that spices offer great health benefits, too? Most contain powerful antioxidants, which fight inflammation and protect you against diseases. Plus, spices make healthy ingredients even more appealing, helping you set down the salt shaker and skip that dab of butter. “As a home cook, it’s easy to get bored,” says Angela Ginn-Meadow, RD, LDN, CDE, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “But spices are a wonderful way to reinvent dishes. I encourage all of my clients to think beyond salt, fat, and sugar, and turn up the heat for your health and wellness.”
Here are six spices, from seasonal superfoods to everyday favorites, that offer big flavor and benefits.
Trendy turmeric gets a gold star as an anti-inflammatory food. That vibrant yellow color comes from curcumin, a powerful antioxidant that can soothe your stomach, relieve achy joints, help fight diseases, and more. Earthy and complex, turmeric adds depth and color to chicken curry, scrambled eggs, sautéed greens, and the drink of the moment, golden milk.
Merry and bright, ginger offers a number of medicinal properties, and it’s the best for stomach issues. Sip on ginger tea for nausea, or unwrap a chew for motion sickness. It’s also been shown to reduce muscle pain, a bonus for athletes. The sharp, clean tingle of the fresh root will make your homemade chai truly magical. It’s also a match for salmon, green beans, and stir-fries.
Warm and familiar cinnamon could reduce your risk for diabetes and heart disease. It’s the key player in pumpkin pie spice, and carries the scent of holiday baking. Many people associate cinnamon with sweets, but it swings savory, too. Sprinkle it over your morning oats or whole-wheat toast, or let it tease the flavor out of tomato sauces and dark greens.
Chiles pack the real heat, from a kick to a wallop. Dried and ground, they lose that fresh-squeezed vitamin C, but the antioxidants become more concentrated. Capsaicin, the active ingredient, boosts your metabolism slightly, and cayenne can curb appetite, so there’s a speck of truth behind the cayenne-lemon water craze. But better than a cleanse, you’ll enjoy these spices even more in cooking, such as a hearty veggie-and-bean chili. Plus, sriracha isn’t just a condiment anymore, it’s practically a way of life.
If you plead, “Not too spicy!” at restaurants, cumin is your safety seasoning. Mild and mellow, cumin seeds come from the same plant as fresh cilantro leaves, and have a similar quality. Cumin goes on almost everything in India and Latin America, and you’ll recognize it as the base note in your tikka masala and tacos.
You probably reach for your pepper mill without a second thought, but everyday black pepper has stealth health benefits. Studies show it can help make your digestion faster and more efficient. Add a generous grind to those grilled steaks, chops, and veggies, and whatever else you’ve got cooking.
The list doesn’t stop there. Stock up your spice rack, and start having fun. The flavor forecast for next year is predicting explosive breakfasts, bold grilling rubs, and plenty of pepper. Hardcore foodies are taking the trends to the next level with French espelette, Middle Eastern sumac, and North African ras el hanout. The great news is that if you go into any grocery store, you’ll see more spices from more parts of the world than ever. There’s something for every palette.
Spices do go stale, so toss and replace whenever color and aroma start to fade. Toasting brings out the most character. But don’t worry too much about measuring spoons. “We need to do more research on exact quantities of specific spices,” explains Ginn-Meadow. “Some of my diabetes patients ask about cinnamon tablets and essential rosemary oil, but I don’t recommend those. Too much spice can be toxic, at max 2 to 3 teaspoons—but that’s more than you would normally eat in a single serving, anyway! Better to start adding a sprinkle here and there, and enjoy spices as a natural part of your cooking.”
Hungry for more? Fire up the spice with these delicious recipes.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.