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Spice It Up!

Bridget Swinney, MS RD
By Bridget Swinney, MS RD

When it comes to the power of spices, you can’t argue with history! As early as 1555 BC, coriander, fennel, cumin, garlic and thyme were noted as health promoting spices. In Greece, Hippocrates used 400 different medicinal herbs—200 of which are still used today.

Today, we are no different than ancient Romans, who drank spice-flavored wines and used spice-scented oils after baths. With the growing body of research showing spices can fight and prevent chronic disease, it’s time to spice it up!

Spices have the highest known antioxidant and anti-inflammatory polyphenols that can decrease the oxidation of LDL cholesterol. By spicing it up, you could decrease inflammation, improve endothelial function and even stimulate DNA repair! (The endothelium is a thin membrane lining the heart and blood vessels—keeping it healthy is a powerful step in preventing cardiovascular disease.)

Health Benefits and Ways to Use Spices

Turmeric

Turmeric is the popular “new” spice with many potential health benefits. Turmeric’s main active ingredient is a polyphenol called curcumin. It has strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which have prompted studies on its effect in preventing cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease, heart disease, and arthritis. It’s been shown to help decrease symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease and ulcerative colitis. It’s better absorbed when consumed with the phytochemical piperine (found in black pepper.) Find more healthy facts about turmeric here.

Cooking ideas: Turmeric is found in curry spice, but you can also use it on its own in soups, roasted veggies, egg dishes, and to flavor rice. You can also use turmeric in smoothies, Golden Milk, and teas. I recently made a chicken soup using Colombo, a type of curry spice containing turmeric, along with turkey thighs, carrots, sweet potatoes, and cauliflower. Talk about yummy!

Oregano

Oregano has proven antibacterial properties, at least when it comes to food. It’s also been used as a folk remedy in Greece and Mexico for colds. One study showed that when added to ground beef before cooking, it reduced harmful cooking byproducts that promote heart disease. Preliminary research shows oregano as a strong antioxidant to benefit heart health, relieve symptoms of inflammation, and help blood sugar. Find more health benefits here.

Cooking Ideas: Besides adding it to tomato or marinara sauce, oregano is the the main flavor profile of Greek salad dressing. It can also be added to chili and other soups, and sprinkled on pizza or grilled or ground meat or poultry. Or infuse it with olive oil and garlic, cook for 30 minutes, and strain out the spices. Use it for dipping bread or in marinades. Keeps refrigerated for up to a month. Or make a pesto made of a mix of oregano and basil.

Hot Red Peppers

I tell my patients, if peppers don’t bother your stomach, eat all you can! Red peppers (not to be confused with bell peppers) belong to the genus Capsicum and contain a potent extract called capsaicin, which as been used pharmacologically to treat pain, sore throat, cough, toothaches, and neurological conditions. Dried chili peppers have also been used in topical pain killers and repellant sprays. In general, the hot peppers contain much more of the active ingredient capsaicin than milder ones. Chili peppers encompass a variety of plants including tabasco pepper, African chilies, paprika, and cayenne pepper. Chilis show promise in weight loss, as chilis have been shown to increase metabolic rate after a meal. More research is needed so stay tuned! Find more chili facts here.

Cooking Ideas: Texas chili is one of the best ways to enjoy peppers, whether you like to put chili, chili flakes, smoked paprika, or tabasco. It’s easy to incorporate chilis in Mexican and New Mexican foods, whether it’s in red enchiladas, chili Colorado, or just putting salsa on everything!

Grow Your Own

It’s almost planting time—chilis, oregano, and many other leafy spices grow well in Texas. Turmeric is a root that can also be planted inside or possibly outside in humid areas. One of my favorite ways to enjoy fresh herbs is to process a variety of fresh herbs such as parsley, basil, oregano, garlic, and chives plus garlic, in mayonnaise for a delicious aioli. You can do the same thing to make a dip with sour cream or Greek yogurt with salt and pepper to taste. Bon Appetit!

Bridget Swinney, MS RD
Bridget Swinney is a health communicator, award-winning author and well-regarded nutrition expert specializing in teaching people to embrace a healthier diet and lifestyle. In her 25 years as a registered dietitian, she has worked in public health, as a clinical...Read More
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