MIREILLE BLACKE, MA, RD, CD-N (this article was first published in JANUARY 2013)
Black Pepper is one of the world’s most popular spices, and it is considered a potent digestive aid and carminative (helping to prevent flatulence). Black pepper’s sharp flavor signals the brain to produce hydrochloric acid secretion in the stomach, which discourages unhealthy bacterial growth and prevents symptoms of bloating and indigestion. Black pepper contains manganese, vitamin K, iron, dietary fiber, and copper, all of which contribute to its antibacterial, digestive, and antioxidant properties. Does pepper make you sneeze? Though piperine in pepper can prompt this annoying reaction, it also increases nutrient absorption and functions as a cancer-fighting antioxidant. Tip: Because increased sodium intake can increase risk for hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and stroke, substitute black pepper for salt in seasoning. Associated recipe: Cajun Black Pot Turkey
Cayenne adds color and heat to foods, and acts as a stimulant, antiseptic, and digestive aid. Its active ingredient (capsaicin) is responsible for cayenne’s heat and is used commonly in topical pain relievers. Hot peppers such as cayenne clear congestion, fight cholesterol, and raise metabolism to lower body fat. For those that can handle the heat, hotter peppers indicate higher antioxidant concentration and greater health benefit. Cayenne contains amino acids, calcium, essential fatty acids, folate, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, and vitamins C, E, and B-complex. Tip: Avoid eye contact after handling cayenne. Associated recipe: Puffed Eggs
Cinnamon is an antioxidant and nutrient powerhouse, containing calcium, chromium, copper, iodine, iron, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, and vitamins A, C and B1, B2, and B3. Translation? Cinnamon has been shown to protect against inflammation, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. Cinnamon consumption is also associated with greater diabetic control, increased brain functioning and peripheral circulation, and improved digestion and fat metabolism. The scent of cinnamon is linked with boosted attention, helpful in dealing with holiday fatigue. Tip: Play with cinnamon’s versatility in sweet and not-sweet dishes; add cinnamon to sweet potatoes, oatmeal, and ground coffee. Note: Minimize cinnamon consumption during pregnancy, as it may stimulate early contractions. Associated recipes: Revved Up Spicy Cider with cinnamon and nutmeg, Spiced Watermelon Rind with cinnamon and clove, and Kumquat au Rhum with cinnamon and peppercorn.
Clove is among the top spices in terms of antioxidant concentration, and has been shown to aid in lowering LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and subsequent risk of atherosclerosis. Studies suggest additional value as an antiseptic, anti-parasitic, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and digestive aid. Containing calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, and vitamins A, B1, B2, and C, clove helps to relieve nausea, stimulate appetite, and reduce flatulence. Tip: These benefits do not transfer to clove cigarettes.
Cumin is a key component in curry powder, and packs a nutty and peppery punch. Cumin seeds have been shown to aid digestion, stabilize blood sugar, fight colon, stomach, and liver cancers, and improve metabolic abnormalities in diabetes. Cumin seeds are high in iron, manganese, calcium, and magnesium, which are important for energy production and immune function. Tip: Spice up brown rice with cumin, coriander seeds, almonds, and dried apricots. Associated recipe: Lady Bird Johnson’s Pedernales Chili Recipe
Fennel seeds taste similar to anise (with a licorice-like flavor), and contains the anti-inflammatory and cancer-fighting agent, anethole. Fennel stimulates bile acid production in the liver, prominent in fat digestion and absorption. This spice is also useful as an appetite suppressant, eye wash, digestive aid, and flea repellant. The broad value of fennel is due to the amino acids, calcium, choline, essential fatty acids, fiber, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, and vitamins C, K, E and B1, B2, B3 it contains. Tip: Chew fennel seeds after meals to freshen breath and aid digestion. Associated recipe: Oysters Rockefeller
Garlic has strong antibacterial and antifungal properties, among numerous other reported health benefits. Garlic is heart-healthy due to its beneficial effects on lipid metabolism, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. Garlic contains calcium, folate, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, zinc, and vitamins C, B1, B2, and B3. The true key to garlic’s benefits may be the compound allicin, associated with enhanced immune function, lowered blood pressure, improved circulation, lower cancer rates, decreased fat storage, improved acne, and memory improvement. Tip: To counter the sulfurous compounds in garlic which can lead to bad breath, chew fresh cardamom seeds or a fresh parsley sprig after a garlicky meal. Associated recipe: Jamila’s Crawfish, Spinach, and Zucchini Bisque
Ginger is one of the oldest and most popular spices, known for its spicy, peppery, and fragrant root. Ginger is particularly popular during the holiday season, found in gingerbread, cookies, cakes, crackers, ginger beverages (ale, tea, beer, wine), and candies. Ginger is considered an antioxidant, antimicrobial and effective food preservative. Brain-protective and anti-inflammatory properties are due in part to the amino acids, calcium, essential fatty acids, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, selenium, zinc, and vitamins K, B1, B2, B3, B6 and C in ginger. (Vitamin A is found in ground ginger.) Ginger consumption has been linked to effective treatment of certain types of nausea, muscle pain associated with exercise, colon inflammation, and arthritis, though further research is warranted. Tip: Add ginger and orange zest to roasted carrots. Note: Ginger consumption in large quantities may lead to stomach distress, and should be avoided by persons taking anticoagulants or with gallstones. Associated recipes: Bourbon Marinated Roast Pork Tenderloin
Mustard seed has strong antimicrobial properties and provide ample spice and flavor without adding unnecessary calories and fat. Mustard seeds contain dietary fiber, protein, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese and selenium, which are associated with muscle and nerve relaxation, improved digestion, increased fat metabolism, and inhibited growth of cancer cells of the gastrointestinal tract. Omega-3 fatty acids in mustard seeds increase brain function and tryptophan promotes serotonin production, benefitting sleep and mood. Tip: Consider adding mustard seed to mashed potatoes and roasted cauliflower. Associated recipe: Peach Chutney
Nutmeg is one of the more popular spices in holiday season dishes such as cakes, cookies, and custards and also creates a warm and sweet flavor in cheese-based dishes, sauces, and vegetables. Ground nutmeg is a source of dietary fiber, manganese, iron, copper, and vitamins A and C, but it also contains a significant amount of saturated fat. Tip: Sprinkle nutmeg over sautéed spinach. Note: While moderate amounts of nutmeg can relieve anxiety, improve irregular sleep, soothe muscle and joint ailments, and promote healthier digestion, higher levels of nutmeg are associated with nausea and hallucinations. This popular holiday spice should be used in moderation only. Associated recipe: Pumpkin Crème Brulee
Paprika, a milder relative of cayenne, is ground from dried red peppers, and helps to boost the immune system via its high concentration of vitamins A and C. Paprika is considered an antiseptic and digestive stimulant, and is linked to improved blood circulation. Tip: Embrace the sweet and spicy varieties of paprika; dust paprika on scrambled eggs or mix it into low-fat mayonnaise for a dip. Note: Large quantities of paprika may aggravate the stomach. Associated recipe: Traditional Deviled Eggs
Turmeric, a component of curry, offers an earthy, peppery flavor while providing anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antifungal, and cancer-fighting properties. Turmeric’s active ingredient (curcumin) has neuro-protective and anti-aging effects on the brain and may be helpful in stroke prevention. Curcumin is also linked with inhibited tumor growth and improved cardiovascular health. Touted by some as the “yellow miracle spice,” turmeric contains calcium, iron, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, and vitamins C and B1, B2, and B3. All of these nutrients contribute to turmeric’s beneficial effects on arthritis, cholesterol profiles, and lowered risk of prostate and colon cancers. Tips: Rub turmeric onto chicken or fish, coat roasted nuts with it, or mix it with yogurt, garlic, and ginger to make a sauce or dip. Note: Long-term consumption of turmeric may lead to stomach distress.
Recommendations from this Registered Dietitian (RD) for the New Year:
1) Small quantities of spices yield strong flavors and few calories, and can contribute significant portions of micronutrients to the diet. For example, a teaspoon of paprika contains more than 20% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A. Some spices, however, contain high portions of fat, protein, and carbohydrate by weight, so be sure to include them in your overall caloric intake (and see #6 for an important caveat). For a winning recipe incorporating several of the spices mentioned in this article, try Herbsaint’s Shrimp and Louisiana Brown Rice Risotto
2) Fight portion distortion. This year, temper decrees from childhood to “clean your plate” after filling it. If you do fill that plate, use smaller plates and select “unornamented” vegetables as your side dishes. Share a dish as you socialize. Choose smart sides and reasonable desserts. Go easy on the salad dressing. [While I do not advocate deprivation of specific foods, I do encourage moderation.]
3) Pick your poison during Carnival Season. Substitute a glass of wine for a large, sugary daiquiri and select a tiny piece of king cake and resist going for seconds. Experiment with an unfamiliar or exotic food, such as grilled gator in place of the fried chicken we normally find along parade routes. The gator has a much higher proportion of healthy fats and protein and maintains the carnival spirit. Small substitutions will add up over the Carnival Season, benefiting your health, mood, and waistline.
4) Unsure about unhealthy foods while making the holiday rounds? Prepare your own dish and bring it to your social functions. Be prepared: snack in advance of parties (and shopping) so you don’t arrive with a growling stomach. Hunger will increase your risk of eating too much at social events, as well as shopping at the grocery store or for gifts (beware of those food courts!). Pick snacks that provide fiber, protein, and healthy fats, such as baby carrots or black bean chips with hummus, spice-roasted nuts (such as chili almonds or curried cashews).
5) Keep It Simple. Choose more foods with fewer ingredients, and aim for whole foods over artificial to make colorful plates for the greatest health benefit. Create a Mardi Gras colored plate with, yellow (yellow bell pepper, yellow squash), green (avocado, Brussels sprouts, spinach, kale, broccoli, peas), and purple (eggplant, beet, purple cabbage).
6) Practice moderation. Too much of a good thing can be harmful, and spices are no exception. Stomach distress is common with large quantities of ginger, nutmeg, paprika, and turmeric. Excess nutmeg can cause hallucinations, and ginger in particular may interact with some medications, such as the blood thinner warfarin (Coumadin). Ginger should also be avoided in persons with gallstones, as it stimulates bile production. Avoid the “ginger jitters” (central nervous system excitation) by keeping intake to less than 2 grams of ginger per kilogram (1 kg = 2.2 lbs.) of body weight.
7) Know that thirst is often disguised as hunger, so keep yourself hydrated and practice moderation (particularly with alcohol). Alternate water with glasses of wine or other alcoholic or caffeinated beverages.