“Variety is the very spice of life,” wrote William Cowper. And certainly, ever since the spice wars launched numerous ships in search of these valuable commodities, our appetite for them has never ceased.
It was the search for spice that led to the voyages of Marco Polo, Vasco De Gamma, and Columbus. From the Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Ottomans, and Elizabethan England to modern day, the heady scents and aromas of spices have been associated with mystery, sensuality, aphrodisiacs, panaceas, wealth and luxury, the exotic, and the unknown.
The reason for the high demand of spices such as nutmeg, cloves, mace, and cinnamon was the belief that they provided protection against many ailments, including the plague. Now science has proven there is some truth to the healing powers of spices.
Black Pepper helps the stomach produce hydrochloric acid to aid in digestion. It can also help to reduce flatulence by diminishing the amount of gas in the intestinal tract. It is a good source of antioxidants. Piperine, in black pepper, has been shown to help fight cancer in recent studies published in the journal, Breast Cancer Research and Treatment.
Cloves have long been known for their anesthetic qualities and have been used by many dentists for toothache. Clove oil is also found in many sore throat sprays. It has excellent anti-inflammatory properties in the form of eugenol, the main component in cloves. Eugenol has been studied for its effect on joint inflammation, digestive tract cancers, and prevents damage from toxic environmental pollutants. Cloves contain a variety of flavenoids that make it a good antioxidant and antibacterial.
Nutmeg contains many essential oils with a host of health benefits; it is used as an anti-fungal, anti-depressant, and anti-oxidant. It helps aid digestion and relieves gas. It is rich in B-complex vitamins and flavenoids and is also claimed to have aphrodisiac properties.
Cinnamon has unique healing abilities found in its essential oils. Cinnamaldehyde helps with anti-clotting of the blood by inhibiting the release of arachidonic acid, an inflammatory fatty acid. It has anti-microbial properties, which help to stop the growth of bacteria and fungi, including Candida. A study published in the International Journal of Food Microbiologyshowed that the addition of a few drops of cinnamon essential oil to 100ml of refrigerated carrot broth inhibited the growth of some food borne pathogens for 60 days.
Cinnamon is good for controlling blood sugar as it slows the rate at which the stomach empties after meals. There are compounds in cinnamon that stimulate insulin receptors and inhibit an enzyme that inactivates them, which can help type 2 diabetes sufferers with their ability to respond to insulin. Diabetes Care published an article in which tests have shown daily ingestion of cinnamon can reduce blood sugar levels by 20-30% depending on the quantity taken. As an antioxidant, it is more powerful than other spices, with the exception of mint (not that mint is a spice).
Cinnamon has been shown in numerous tests to improve brain function and cognitive processes. This applies even to just smelling cinnamon or chewing cinnamon gum.
Known for its warming properties, one of the best known natural preventions of colds and flu is a mixture hot water, ginger, cinnamon, and lemon—found in some of the oldest recordings of Chinese medicine, nearly 4000 yrs old.
Known to be an anti-inflammatory, it is warming and soothing and has anti-flatulent properties. As with black pepper, it increases digestion by stimulating gastro-intestinal secretions. It is also an antiseptic and has anesthetic properties. The outer coating of the berries is the most beneficial.
Arguably the best, but probably one of the least used spices. There really is no end to the benefits of turmeric, mainly due to the effects of curcumin (the pigment that gives turmeric its bright yellow colour), which is proving to be “medicinal gold.” Chinese and Indian medicines have long used turmeric to alleviate a host of ailments including flatulence, jaundice, menstrual difficulties, hemorrhages, toothache, chest pain, and colic. It has been shown to be as effective an anti-inflammatory as hydrocortisone, phenylbutazone, and Motrin. Unlike these drugs, it has no toxic effects such as ulcers, decreased white blood cell count, and intestinal bleeding. In rheumatoid arthritis sufferers it has shown to help with easing morning stiffness, lengthened walking time, and reducing joint swelling.
Curcumin, along with piperine in pepper, has been shown to help fight cancer, as noted in a recent article in Breast Cancer Research and Treatment. Frequent use of turmeric has been show to lower rates of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer. When combined with onions, it is particularly effective against colon cancer. When taken with vegetables of the brassica family (cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, sprouts, kale, and turnips), it is effective against prostate cancer. In India, prostate cancer is rare amongst men. This has been attributed to a diet rich in brassicas and turmeric. Studies by Prof. Moolky Nagabhushan from Loyola University Medical Centre in Chicago have shown that curcumin can help mitigate factors that contribute to leukemia in children.
Curcumin improves liver function by helping produce detoxifying enzymes. Again, due to the high levels of turmeric use, elderly Indians have very low rates of neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. Experimental research has shown that curcumin does slow Alzheimer’s in mice and also suggests that it may block the progression of multiple sclerosis.
The medieval and old wives tales of yesteryear may not have been too far from the truth. Spices really are beneficial against a wide variety of ailments. Moreover, they have a psychological effect—the wonderful tastes, scents, and aromas stimulate memories.
Buying, Storing, and Using Spices
When buying and storing spices, stick to small quantities and use them quickly, within a month or two. They lose their flavor and colour fairly quickly, so keep them in airtight jars and store them in a cool dark place. Use them to scent your home by adding a few drops of essential oil, like cinnamon, to an oil burner. Or try taping a vanilla pod to the back of a radiator. As it warms up, it will give off a wonderful smell. When having a barbeque, burn some rosemary twigs. Or take an old trick from open plan restaurant kitchens and scorch some rosemary or thyme twigs for a bright fresh scent.