Besides their aroma, flavour and preservative properties, herbs and spices are known for their therapeutic benefits. Moushmi Kishore lists some of them
Chances are you sprinkle a pinch of cinnamon in your bowl of cereal in the morning, add a little pepper to your soup, or oregano seasoning to your pizza topping without giving the spice much thought. But did you know that your favourite spice could actually do your body good? Research has shown that herbs and spices have the potential to boost metabolism, promote satiety, help with weight management and improve the overall quality of your diet.
The saying, ‘A herb is a friend of physicians and the praise of cooks’, rightly suggests the dual role of herbs and spices in flavouring and providing health benefits. Herbs and spices have been used historically due to their aroma, flavour and preservative properties. They have also been known for their therapeutic benefits.
The healing power of herbs and spices was tapped even thousands of years ago in India. In traditional Indian medicine, herbs and spices were used to treat various ailments, such as turmeric for jaundice, basil to protect the heart, mace for stomach infections, cinnamon to stimulate circulation, and ginger as a universal medicine for relieving nausea and indigestion. Many of these herbs and spices are still used for their therapeutic benefits and modern science has documented several of these.Medical properties
What makes herbs and spices so special is their anti-oxidant concentration. Full of anti-oxidants, minerals, and vitamins, spices and herbs can be liberally added to preparations. It’s not very clear how these constituents work in the body; however, they certainly possess cholesterol-lowering, anti-clotting, anti-hypertensive (lowering blood pressure), anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, decongestant, hypoglycaemic and even metabolism and immune-boosting properties.
The Indian market is loaded with dozens of herbs and spices, from the very common black pepper to the exotic turmeric. Indian cuisine contains a vast number of important spices, which are not present in processed preparations. Dieticians say that people are not aware of the important properties of herbs and spices. “Due to the frantic pace of everyday life, most women don’t get the time to cook and instead buy readymade meals which don’t have the essential quality, as well as the recommended quantity, of herbs and spices,” says Dr. Nupur Krishnan, clinical nutritionist in Mumbai.
If you are going in for bland preparations, thinking it might be a healthier option, think again. The condiments in our Indian preparations stimulate the gastric juices, which is why you get constipated after eating bland preparations in foreign countries. “Hence, when people eat westernised diets, they lose out on the goodness of these herbs and spices which are traditionally used in Indian cooking,” says Vinita Aran, nutritionist in Mumbai.Healing power
A kitchen shelf, which boasts bottles containing black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, turmeric, mustard, and cumin is a common sight in India. These spices not only add taste to your cuisine, but have powerful phytoestrogens which have anti-bacterial, anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. Even the basic ginger and garlic combination is good for digestion, blood purification, acidity release and serves as a cure for gastro problems. “In ginger, gingerol, zingiberene and shogaol have anti-oxidant capabilities, which may help prevent heart disease and cancer,” says Nupur. Ginger can be a healthy addition to hot tea.
Garlic is loaded with nearly 100 active compounds, the most important being allicin, a sulphur-containing compound. Research has shown that garlic plays a cardio-protective role by helping to lower blood cholesterol, especially the undesirable fraction of serum cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and serum fat. Eating half a clove of garlic a day may lower your blood cholesterol level by 9 per cent, provided one takes it regularly. Anti-clotting and anti-hypertensive properties have also been attributed to allicin. Cinnamon, ginger, chilli and turmeric have also been associated with a decrease in LDL (bad cholesterol) and an increase in HDL (good cholesterol) levels.
Several herbs and spices have been found to have anti-cancer properties. Herbs and spices with known anti-carcinogenic effects include turmeric, garlic, basil, rosemary, mint and lemon grass. Several studies have found that turmeric possesses chemo-protective effects against cancers of the skin, stomach, liver, colon and mouth. “Curcumin present in turmeric is anti-inflammatory and a potent anti-oxidant, which can inhibit tumour formation, according to recent studies,” says Vinita. It is traditionally used in curries in India.
Turmeric in milk is a common cure for cold and cough in winter. It also relieves arthritic pain. Turmeric paste speeds up wound healing. The powder has also been found to prevent Alzheimer’s and cancer cells from multiplying, as well as helping with cystic fibroids and sclerosis. The yellow-coloured powerful beta carotene can also help relieve eye problems. Natural anti-inflammatory herbs and their compounds include turmeric milk, ginger, chilli, garlic, liquorice (mulethi), and they provide protection against asthma, chest problems, and mouth ulcers. Garlic reduces inflammation by preventing the formation of agents (prostaglandins) which induce it.
Herbs have been used in the treatment of diabetes for years. Spices that have been found to be beneficial in the treatment of diabetes include fenugreek seeds, cinnamon, cloves, bay leaves and turmeric. “Fenugreek seeds contain trigonelline and are a rich source of fibre. Fenugreek seeds should not be consumed raw. They are better taken soaked or powdered. They are also very good for lactating mothers, when taken in the form of ladoos, as it can induce milk production and is very good for balancing the insulin level in the blood,” says Nupur. The list can go on she says.
One shouldn’t leave out these vital herbs and spices when cooking. Herbs and spices usually do not have any side-effects, but check with your doctor to be sure certain herbs and spices don’t interfere with any medications you may be taking. So, go ahead, spice up your daily cooking and boost your health.