Role of Spices in Nutrition and Health

Our tradition, culture, religion, and geography have guided our food preparation techniques and eating habits, and spices have always had their special roles. Since time immemorial, spices have been a significant part of our cuisine. It is difficult to imagine a single meal without a blend of spices or herbs in it. They enhance the natural flavor of our food and act as potentiators. They balance and add flavor to everyday ingredients and elevate it to a whole new level. Spice is a culinary term, and a spice may be any aromatic part of the plant, such as the bud (clove), bark (cinnamon/cassia), fruit (peppercorn/long pepper), rhizome (ginger/turmeric), seed (cumin/nutmeg), and flower stigma (saffron), seed pod (cardamom), leaves (bay leaf/tulsi), plant resin (asafoedita), and even covering of seeds (mace) of a plant. Spices have been used since ancient times in cooking, cosmetics, perfume production, aromatherapy, incense making, and traditional medicine.

Why are herbs and spices used in cooking? The easy and most obvious answer is that they enhance flavor and color and make our food more palatable. However, beside their primary role as organoleptic enhancers, spices have potential health benefits. Different spices each have their own set of physiological and pharmacological properties, ranging from anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antibacterial, antiviral, and antihelminth. Some are believed to have antimicrobial properties, some act as digestives stimulants, some as sleep aids, some help with flu symptoms, some curb diabetes and cholesterol, some play a role in hormone balance, some act as local anesthetic, some promote dental health, some are lactogenic, some act as diuretics, and some as asperients. The list of ethnomedical benefits is various and diverse. Spices are also considered to help in preventing food borne diseases because of their role in food preservation having bacteriostatic and fungistatic properties. In the traditional art of healing, Ayurveda, spices are not only considered medicine, but they are also considered to bring about a balance in the three life energies (Vata, Pitta, and Kapha) in our body. Due to geographical availability of various spices and their ability to promote health and well-being, spices became an integral part of lives. They became an essential to cuisines, our religions, our traditions and ethnicity, and have blended in within the fabric of our lives.

The earliest written records of spices come from ancient Asian cultures. Spices were prominent enough in the ancient world that they are mentioned in the epic poem Ramayana. Spice trade became highly lucrative during the 14th and 15th centuries. Spices were amongst the most demanded products for their use in food and their perceived medicinal values, and the trade flourished due to high profitability. Since they were rare, expensive, and exotic commodities, their consumption was often a symbol of wealth and social status. Expeditions were carried out in hopes of finding new spices and finding new routes, so as to reach the areas where spices were grown. The legendary Christopher Columbus’ explorations were said to be in search of new routes to India, China, Japan, and the Spice Islands (Maluku Islands, Indonesia) to bring back spices and silk, which were highly sought in Europe.
When I was little, my great grandmother had a home remedy involving spices for every small ailment and problem that existed in our everyday lives. She taught me to put pouches of Sichuan pepper amongst silk clothes to repel insects. Mustard, fenugreek, cumin, and garlic were added to pickles to prevent them from spoiling. I and my sister were given a combination of honey and roasted ground long pepper for cough. Camphor and ‘ghee’ was rubbed on to little chests to make breathing easy during a bout of cold. Turmeric, cinnamon and nutmeg powder were added to the milk, so we could sleep better. Kada (a blend of spices boiled in water) with honey was for cold weather, sore throat, and acted as a cough expectorant. Spiced khutti ko raas (goat trotters stew) with lots of ginger and garlic to boost immunity and health. Clove oil for toothache, holy basil for all kind of ailments, mint sharbat (drink) for hot weather, aloevera for minor burns, neem oil for skin problems, fennel and ginger for acid reflux, asafoedita for gas and bloating, and the list could go on.

Since they have potent medicinal properties, what spice with what foods, what quantity, and in what weather was always very important. Do spices really help? Or, are these ethnomedically recognized medicinal properties just a myth? Microbiologists have conducted experiments to see if the phytochemicals in spices have health benefits and have proved certain spices do. Growing number of researches have demonstrated clove, cumin, thyme, cinnamon, bay leaf, mustard, and oregano, amongst many others, were found to be potent spices against microbes. Studies have been conducted on eugenol, an active ingredient in clove oil, which is found to be effective in oral care at reducing pain, inflammation, and infection, and is now widely used in oral healthcare products. Similarly, peppermint oil has been found to have antimicrobial properties and is used in oral and skin care products.

Various studies show that curcumin (a constituent of turmeric), green tea, and flax seeds contain phytochemicals, which are potent antioxidants and have chemopreventive properties. Turmeric and sage have also been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, and help slow down age-related degenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. Certain spices like cinnamon, saffron and ginger have statistically significant data to show that they are effective in metabolic disorders and posses antidiabetic properties. Saffron is also found to be helpful in treating mild to moderate depression in clinical studies. Studies are being conducted to see if spices help with central nervous system and cardiovascular disorders. Capsaicin (found in chili pepper) in food was associated with a lower prevalence of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. Research on the effects of carom seeds and fenugreek, which become a part of postpartum daily diet in our country, have shown to be beneficial in early stage of lactogenesis. Nutmeg has been shown to help with anxiety and helps improve sleep duration and quality.
Hippocrates, traditionally referred to as the “father of medicine”, said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food.” Our ancestors rightly recognized the importance of spices in our lives; hence, they became an integral part of our cuisine. Different geographical areas and different cultures have their own significant spices. These ethnomedical remedies are time-tested and now are being proven with science. Though more extensive research on spices is required for them to come into mainstream medicine, if they ever do, it might not be a bad idea to turn to traditional medicine for minor ailments. Adding spices to our meals may be our gateway to better health.

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