The smell of cinnamon in a baking pie. The subtle, elegant taste of saffron in a creamy aioli. These are the sensations that create a passion for food. But increasingly, spices are moving from the bakery to the beaker and back again, as scientists discover that culinary staples have medical benefits.
Some spices, like garlic, receive lots of attention in the media. In April, a German study found that garlic not only reverses but actually prevents arteriosclerosis. Before that, garlic was frequently used to boost immunity and promote heart health. ?If I had to reduce myself to one medicinal plant it would be garlic,? says Jim Duke, Ph.D., an ethnobotanist and founder of Green Farmacy Garden in Fulton, Md. ?It?s good for so many different things,? he says. ?In my garden, it?s arranged by disease. I have over 80 plots, and garlic?s in 20 of them.?
But health benefits aren?t limited to a pinch of the pungent. ?All the spices per se have health benefits associated with them,? says Dhiraj Vattem, Ph.D., associate professor of nutritional biomedicine and biotechnology at Texas State University.
While this won?t surprise followers of Ayurvedic or traditional Chinese medicine, it?s a fairly new concept in Western medicine. ?A lot of it has been changing, especially with emerging science,? Vattem says. ?The mainstream medical schools recognize that we have started to incorporate phytochemicals in chemoprevention and we?re seeing some very, very promising results, and that is establishing some credibility for [the claims] that have been made by traditional medicine for thousands of years.?
Among some of the more prominent studies that have been done recently is one focusing on curcumin, the yellow component of turmeric, which is often used in curries and other South Asian dishes. Last December, the Journal of Biological Chemistry reported that curcumin may prevent Alzheimer?s disease because it limits the growth of a protein in the brain called amyloid, which creates the tangles of tissue associated with Alzheimer?s. Curcumin has also been shown to slow the growth of skin cancers, a study reported in the August issue of Cancer. Additional studies have linked turmeric to lower rates of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancers.
Cinnamon also curried some attention when a small study found that it lowered levels of both cholesterol and blood sugar. The study used cassia cinnamon, which is the type normally found in American supermarkets. True cinnamon is obtained from the bark of the Cinnamomum verum tree. Most recently, a study in Iran found that saffron is as effective as Prozac in treating mild to moderate depression.
What?s behind this botanical bonanza of wellness? ?Most of these spices? health benefit is usually because of certain phytochemicals present in them—antioxidants,? Vattem says. ?We are putting forward a new hypothesis that many of these phytochemical compounds don?t kill the bacteria; they prevent it from becoming pathogenic.?
Whatever the mechanism, spices are becoming increasingly valued for their chemopreventive and cardiovascular benefits. ?The issue that concerns me in this whole field of studying [spices?] anticarcinogenic compounds is that they are being studied just like pharmaceutical compounds,? Vattem says. By focusing in on just one element of the spice, he says, ?it is very easy for the bacteria to develop the antibiotic resistance and overcome the effect of the spices and herbs. We need to understand the effect of these spices and herbs in a more holistic way.?
One way to accomplish this is to ?explore dishes that are made with vegetables alone,? Vattem says. ?The inherent flavor of cooked vegetables is much lower; you have to supplement them by adding lots of spices.? He thinks food manufacturers could incorporate flavorless extracts of spices into salad dressings, pizza toppings and beverages. ?It is a big challenge because you are incorporating a cuisine that has existed for 5,000 or 6,000 years into a relatively new palate.?
Just a dash
Mike Johnston, co-owner of the Savory Spice Shop, a 1,300-square-foot specialty store in Denver, thinks it?s getting easier. ?People are venturing off into Moroccan food, going into other spices that they have not ventured into before.? Still, he says, consumers need an educated introduction to the world of spices, as they do with most new concepts. ?We carry four types of cinnamon,? Johnston says. ?Most people didn?t even know there was more than one. We take them through a taste test.? One of the things he tries to impress upon customers is the importance of freshness, especially with something like cinnamon. ?It?s just bark that?s been ground, so you?re essentially getting sawdust? if you purchase something that was ground and packaged several months ago.
While Johnston doesn?t specifically market the health benefits of the spices he sells, he says he tries to stay up to date with the latest information so he can answer consumers? questions. Johnston also finds that the bulk concept works well for merchandising the more exotic spices. ?They can get the quantity they want. They don?t necessarily have to commit to a jar that they may never use again,? he says.
To that end, fresh herbs are best used the day they are bought, says Nina Simonds in her book Spices of Life: Simple and Delicious Recipes for Great Health (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005). But, she says, they will keep in the refrigerator for several days if they are stored upright with their stems or roots in water. Curry leaves, chile peppers and lemongrass can be tightly wrapped in plastic and stored in the fridge for up to two weeks. Ground spices must be kept in airtight containers in a cool, dry cupboard away from light and heat.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 9/p. 66