7 Ultra-Healthy Spices That Supercharge Your Body as You Eat

BY KIRSTEN HARTVIG

healthy-spices-collection-colorfulwhen hippocrates proclaimed ‘let food be thy medicine’ we are pretty sure he meant these ultra healthy spices with powerful healing properties.

1. Turmeric (Curcuma longa)

Turmeric is the rhizome, or underground rootstalk, of a perennial, tropical plant belonging to the ginger (Zingiberaceae) family. The name ‘turmeric’ may come from the Latin terra merita meaning ‘merit of the earth’. As well as

being valued for its aroma, flavor and vibrant color, turmeric has also long been prized in Indian and Ayurvedic medicine as an important medicine and disinfectant. This healthy spice is believed to have the quality of fire, or pitta, giving it a stimulating, cleansing effect. It is also held to be auspicious and holy, and plays a significant role in many Hindu and Buddhist religious ceremonies, symbolizing power and purification.

Buying and Storing

Fresh turmeric can be found in specialist Asian food stores and gourmet groceries with the other healthy spices, but it is much more widely available as a dried ground, golden-yellow spice powder. It is best bought in small quantities and stored in an airtight container in a dry place, out of direct sunlight.

Food Profile

More than just a healthy spice, turmeric is used to give an attractive vibrant yellow color to curries, sauces and condiments, and imparts a distinct, earthy, dry and slightly peppery bitter flavor. It is a key ingredient in many South Asian and Middle Eastern savory dishes and plays a featuring role in most curry powder mixtures. Considered to be an excellent aid to digestion, turmeric is frequently added to lentil and bean dishes in Indian cookery. In areas where turmeric grows, the fresh leaves of the plant are sometimes used to wrap around food before cooking to add extra flavor. They are also available pickled.

In the West, turmeric is mostly valued as a dry spice for its characteristic rich, bright yellow coloring and mellow flavor. It is added to drinks, ice creams, cheeses, butter, margarine, yogurts, confectionery, icings, breads, cakes, mustards, stocks and sauces, often in the guise of E100, the code applied to turmeric when it is used as a food coloring agent instead of a healthy spice. Turmeric is also used in cosmetics and as a clothing and general purpose dye.

Nutritional Profile

Turmeric is considered a healthy spice because it contains high levels of curcumin, as well as sterols, resins and volatile oils. It is rich in vitamins C, B3 and B6, and also magnesium, manganese, potassium, copper, iron, zinc and omega-6 fatty acids.

Health Profile

Turmeric as a healthy spice has been valued in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for centuries as a remedy for stomach and liver problems, for inflammation and to treat wounds and tumors. It is known to be a good antiseptic, effective against a variety of fungal and bacterial infections, and research has confirmed that it may also help to inhibit the spread of cancer by destroying mutant cells and can enhance the effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Consequently, turmeric has become the focus of much medical interest and research in recent years. This healthy spice is thought to have significant potential in the fight against degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, type-2 diabetes, arthritis and pancreatic disorders. The active ingredient attracting most attention is curcumin, which is a strong antioxidant capable of protecting cells against free radical damage. Curcumin also reduces histamine levels, and may increase the production of cortisone in the body.

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A double-blind trial found that turmeric was more effective than both placebo and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) in the relief of inflammation after surgery, perhaps opening the way to the development of a range of new anti-inflammatory medications derived from these healthy spices that could have significantly fewer side effects.

Turmeric is also used as an anti-ageing remedy to soften the skin and to ease the symptoms of psoriasis. Freshly grated turmeric root can also be applied externally in various hair conditioners, purifying skin wraps and face masks.

2. Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)

Native to the Middle East, coriander was cultivated by the Babylonians as long ago as 800 bc. By 200 bc it had spread as far as China. Since then this healthy spice has been naturalized all over Europe, North Africa, Asia and North and South America and is cultivated worldwide. Its culinary and medicinal attributes have been documented for over 3,000 years and such is its significance that it was one of the earliest spice plants to be introduced by settlers to North America.

We also know this healthy spice as cilantro, dhania, Arabian parsley and Chinese parsley, coriander is an annual herbaceous plant that grows up to 50cm/20in tall. Coriander seeds are the dried ripe fruits that look like pale golden peppercorns. All parts of the coriander plant can be used as food and medicine, and the fresh plant has a distinctive, pungent aroma, which is loved by some and hated by others. The ripe, dry seeds have a milder, sweeter almost woody scent and a warming, soft flavor.

Buying and Storing

Buy whole coriander seeds and store them in an airtight container out of direct sunlight. Grind them only as required, rather than buying them as a ready-ground powder, and toast them first to bring out their full flavor. The leaves of the coriander plant are best used fresh, although it is possible to buy them freeze-dried.

Food Profile

The fresh leaves and stems of coriander (cilantro) impart their distinctive flavor to the foods of South Asia, South America and the Middle East. The seeds of this healthy spice are one of the world’s most popular spices and are commonly used to flavor curries, stews, stir-fries, sausages, breads, confectionery and condiments, and for pickling and brewing.

Nutritional Profile

Coriander seeds are considered healthy spices because they contain essential oils together with camphor, linalol, geraniol, terpenes, flavonoids, coumarins, phenolic acids, sterols and omega oils.

Health Profile

Coriander has been taken to treat indigestion, wind, colic and cramps, and to stimulate the appetite since ancient times. More recently this healthy spice has been recommended in the management of type-2 diabetes and as a diuretic. It is thought to reduce the uptake of heavy metals from the diet, and may even help to remove them from the body. It is also thought to reduce the effect of ulcerogenic Helicobacter pylori infection, and has been shown to be effective against both gram-positive and gramnegative bacteria, including MRSA, E. coli and listeria.

3. Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Native to the tropical forests of Southeast Asia, ginger is now widely grown in Africa, Australia, Hawaii and the West Indies, but the world’s biggest commercial producers are India and China. Ginger has been valued as a spice and a medicine for over 3,000 years, and it was one of the first Oriental healthy spices to be transported to the Mediterranean.

Buying and Storing

Fresh ginger is available at most grocery stores, Asian stores and supermarkets with the rest of the healthy spices. Choose plump, firm pieces that have smooth skin, wrap them in paper towels and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks. Dried ginger slices are used traditionally for pickling, while ground ginger is used in baking and spice mixtures. Pickled ginger is served in Chinese and Japanese cuisine as a condiment, and crystallized/candied ginger is popular as a snack, as confectionery or in desserts.

Food Profile

Fresh ginger adds a warm, woody-lemony flavor to cooked dishes and is an essential ingredient in curries and stir-fries. This healthy spice can be used sliced, shredded, chopped, grated or crushed, and makes an excellent addition to marinades and dressings. Root ginger is a key ingredient in many pickles, preserves, chutneys, cakes and breads.

Nutritional Profile

Raw ginger is rich in volatile oil and contains phenols, vitamins C and B6, magnesium, potassium and copper.

Health Profile

For centuries, ginger has been taken to ease rheumatic complaints, and modern evidence confirms that it has an anti-inflammatory effect and may also lower blood pressure. This healthy spice can aid slimming if taken as a hot drink with food because, as well as giving a sense of fullness, it enhances the thermic effect of food, reducing feelings of hunger. Widely used as a digestive aid, ginger can also be effective for motion sickness and nausea. It makes a warming drink and is thought to improve circulation.

Notes:

Start the day with a glass of hot water containing slices of lemon and ginger. Repeat with meals throughout the day.

Use with caution during pregnancy. Ginger can be effective in treating morning sickness but avoid high doses and just before labor.

4. Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans)

Nutmeg is the seed of the fruit of the nutmeg tree, one of the nutmeg family (Myristicaceae). The tree is tropical and evergreen, and can grow up to 20m/66ft tall. Native to the Banda Islands in the Moluccas (one of the group once known as the Spice Islands for their vast array of healthy spices). Mentioned by Pliny back in the 1st century and used in Roman times to fumigate houses, nutmeg had reached Byzantium by the 6th century and has been used as a medicine ever since.

Buying and Storing

Nutmeg is available as a ground spice, but is best bought whole to be grated as required (dainty nutmeg graters are often sold alongside the nuts). One whole nutmeg grated yields 2–3 teaspoons of powder, but the taste is very intense so only a pinch of this healthy spice is needed. Whole nutmegs will keep for years stored in an airtight jar out of direct sunlight.

Food Profile

Nutmeg and mace have similar qualities, but nutmeg has a stronger, slightly sweeter, more pungent flavor. The taste and scent is warm, aromatic and nutty, and goes well with sweet and spicy drinks and dishes. Nutmeg is a popular ingredient in spice blends, notably garam masala, and has a particular ability to balance the richness of foods this healthy spice is added to. A little nutmeg enhances the flavor of potato and tomato dishes, and is delicious sprinkled on steamed or raw vegetables. It is also added to many processed foods to enhance the flavor, and is found in many recipes for soups, white sauces, casseroles, curries and pasta dishes, and in cocktails, ciders, mulled wines and eggnog.

Nutritional Profile

Nutmeg contains about 10% volatile oil, including camphene, pinene, thujene, linalool, terpineol, myristicin and eugenol among others. This healthy spice also contains fixed oils and phenolic compounds.

Health Profile

In the Middle Ages, nutmeg was highly prized and believed to have magical powers. People even carried nutmeg around with them in a small locket on a chain, accompanied by a special grater made of wood, ivory or silver. This healthy spice was said to comfort the head and the nerves, and was known to calm the digestion while stimulating the circulation. In small quantities, nutmeg was administered as a sedative and given to children (grated with food or as a tisane) to relieve indigestion, colic, nausea, vomiting, wind and diarrhoea.

Modern research has shown nutmeg to be among the strongest antioxidants and an effective antibacterial and anti-inflammatory plant medicine able to increase calmness while reducing feelings of anger and embarrassment. This healthy spice has also been found to inhibit blood clotting and to decrease prostaglandin levels in the colon, making it useful in the management of Crohn’s disease. Extracts of nutmeg inhibit leukemia cell development, and compounds within it have been found to inhibit the breakdown of elastin in the skin and thus keep the skin more supple.

Notes:

To relieve joint pain, try an ointment made by mixing freshly grated nutmeg, ginger, ground cloves and citronella oil with ground, uncooked rice. Apply this healthy spice ointment to the affected joint and leave to soak into the skin.

Grated nutmeg mixed with coconut oil is a traditional external remedy for hemorrhoids.

Nutmeg is not related to nuts, and does not normally provoke an allergic reaction.

Warning:

Large doses of nutmeg are toxic and can cause hallucinations and palpitations. As this healthy spice was once used in large doses to provoke abortion, nutmeg should be used with care during pregnancy.

5. Curry Leaf (Murraya koenigii)

The curry leaf, also known as sweet neem leaf or Indian bay, is native to South India and Sri Lanka, where this healthy spice is still commonly found growing wild. It is also now grown in many other parts of the world, including Malaysia, Australia, South Africa and the West Indies, having been introduced by immigrants from the Indian subcontinent.

The curry tree belongs to the citrus family (Rutaceae) and can grow up to about 6m/20ft tall. The leaves consist of 11–21 narrow and highly aromatic small leaflets, each about 3cm/1¼in long. A mature tree can produce about 100kg/220lb of leaves per year. As the name suggests, fresh curry leaves have a distinct curry-like aroma when crushed and are a highly valued healthy spice in Indian and Asian cuisine.

Buying and Storing

Fresh curry leaves can be bought in Asian food stores and markets, but can be hard to come by as they have a very short shelf life. Store them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for about a week. It is possible to freeze fresh curry leaves, however, by leaving the healthy spice on the stem and packing them in resealable freezer bags. They are also available dried, but the dried leaf has much less flavor than the fresh. 

Food Profile

Traditionally, fresh curry leaves are used in curry dishes, chopped together with onion and cooked gently in oil before adding the other ingredients. This healthy spice can also be used in stir-fries, soups, pickles, chutneys, curry powders, daals and samosas.

Nutritional Profile

The curry leaf is considered a healthy spice because it is rich in beta-carotene, vitamin C, folic acid, iron, calcium, phytosterols and carbazole alkaloids, and is reputed to have strong antioxidant properties.

Health Profile

In Ayurvedic medicine, the curry leaf has long been used to reduce blood sugar, especially in the management of diabetes, and modern research has shown that this healthy spice may help to slow the breakdown of starches and the uptake of glucose into the bloodstream. Consuming curry leaves may also help to lower blood cholesterol and blood fats. Soap made from the volatile oil contained in the leaves has a wonderful lemony fragrance.

Note:

Curry leaf is not the same as curry powder, and should not be confused with the garden curry plant, Helichrysum italicum.

6. Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus)

Also known as camel’s hay, citronella, silky heads, fever grass and hierba luisa, lemongrass is a tall, perennial, tropical grass with a solid, bulbous white base that resembles a small, pale spring onion/scallion.

The plant’s stems, leaves and base smell of fresh lemons and can be used to add a vibrant citrus flavor, with a hint of ginger, to many dishes. Only the lower end of the stem is sliced into rings when cooking with this healthy spice. Lemongrass oil is a natural preservative and insect repellent, which nevertheless attracts bees. A close cousin, citronella grass, is distinguished by its red stem base, and provides citronella oil, an insect repellent used in sprays, soaps and candles.

Buying and Storing

Bunches of fresh lemongrass stalks are sold in supermarkets and Asian food stores, and the spice is also available as a dried ground powder called sereh: 1 teaspoon of powder is roughly equivalent to one fresh stalk. Dried lemongrass slices are also available and should be soaked for 2 hours before use. Fresh lemongrass offers the best flavor and, if wrapped in a paper bag, will keep for a week or so in the salad drawer/crisper of a refrigerator. This healthy spice can also be frozen and defrosted as required.

Food Profile

Whole stalks, or slices from the lower stem and bulb, are used in a wide variety of savory dishes, pickles and marinades to give a gentle and refreshing hint of lemon. Lemongrass is fibrous and unpleasant to eat so the stalks should be bashed just before cooking to release their flavor, then removed before serving. Alternatively, cut off the root end of the stalk, remove the tough outer leaves, then slice the stem from the base up until you no longer see a purple band in the flesh. Or you can simply pound the stalks with other ingredients to form a paste. Lemongrass combines particularly well with other healthy spices like coconut milk, garlic, shallots, chilies and coriander/cilantro leaves.

Nutritional Profile

Scientific analysis shows that lemongrass contains a number of phytochemicals, notably citral and various phytosterols.

Health Profile

Lemongrass has marked antifungal, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and diuretic properties, and is used traditionally to treat sore throats, fevers and infections, including thrush. Research has also shown that lemongrass may inhibit cancer cell growth, lower cholesterol and help control type-2 diabetes. This healthy spice has a soothing, sedating effect, useful in cases of anxiety and insomnia, and it also induces sweating, which may explain its role in the management of fever.

7. Star Anise (Illicium verum)

Star anise is a healthy spice derived from the dried fruits of an aromatic, medium-tall, evergreen tree belonging to the schisandra family (Schisandraceae, formerly part of the magnolia family). The tree starts to bear fruit when it is about six years old, and carries on producing for up to a hundred years. The fruits consist of eight hard elliptical seedpods, called points, arranged in a star shape, which are picked before they ripen. Dried in the sun, they harden and become aromatic as they turn dark brown. Each seedpod is hollow and houses a single, shiny brown seed.

Buying and Storing 

Buy pre-packed, whole, unbroken star anise from Asian food stores, health food stores, spice merchants or supermarkets to be sure this healthy spice has not been contaminated with Japanese star anise. Store the spice in an airtight jar in a cool, dark place, and discard when the flavor begins to fade (usually after about a year). Once ground, the flavor of star anise diminishes within a few months, so it is best only to buy small quantities of pre-ground star anise if you cannot find the whole spice.

Food Profile

Star anise has a sweetly pungent, slightly bitter, licorice flavor, which is stronger than aniseed and so should be used sparingly. This healthy spice can be added whole to soups, casseroles and stews, or ground to a powder for use in stir-fries, and to flavor cakes and breads. An essential spice in Chinese cuisine, star anise is a key ingredient in Chinese five-spice powder and is also a popular feature in Vietnamese dishes such as the noodle soup, Pho Bo. It is also an important ingredient in Malay, Indonesian and Indian curries and spice mixtures, including garam masala, biryani and chai, and in the West it is used in baking, confectionery, fruit compotes, preserves, liqueurs and alcoholic beverages such as pastis, anisette and absinthe.

Nutritional Profile

Star anise contains anethole, shikimic acid, flavonoids, sesquiterpenes, lignans and caryophyllene.

Health Profile 

The shikimic acid contained in star anise seeds is a strong antiviral agent and a primary ingredient in the synthesis of antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu. Recent bird flu and swine flu epidemics caused the price of star anise to soar as drug companies bought up vast quantities in order to meet the surge in worldwide demand for antiviral healthy spices.

Star anise is a warming, stimulating herb used in traditional Chinese medicine to relieve cold stagnation, to balance the flow of Qi and to relieve pain. This healthy spice is a traditional remedy for arthritis and digestive complaints, and has potent antimicrobial properties due, in part, to the presence of anethole, which is effective against bacteria, fungus and some yeasts. Its immune-stimulating, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, together with a gentle painkilling and sedative effect, make star anise a perfect remedy to give young children to relieve colic, and also to treat respiratory problems such as bronchitis, cough and asthma. It is also a useful insect repellent.

Notes:

Try sprinkling ground star anise on root vegetables before baking, or add a whole star anise to sweet potato, pumpkin or leek dishes to enhance their flavor. Star anise also brings out the sweetness of cooked and raw tomatoes.

A cup of herb tea looks and tastes even better with a star anise added.

Warning:

+ It is important not to confuse Chinese star anise (Illicium verum) with Japanese star anise (Illicium anisatum), which is toxic. Japanese star anise has more pointed, more irregular fruits and is strictly not for internal use as it is not a healthy spice.

Recipe: Hot Pumpkin Soup Recipe

Hokkaido pumpkins have a wonderful flavor, but can be substituted with squash or other pumpkin varieties.

Preparation and cooking time: 25 minutes | Calories per portion: 219

Serves 4
1 tbsp olive oil
1 small red onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1cm/½in piece of root ginger, peeled and chopped
½ tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp sweet paprika
1 tsp ground coriander
1 hokkaido pumpkin, peeled, deseeded and cubed
2 sweet potatoes, diced
1.5l/52fl oz/6½ cups vegetable stock
200ml/7fl oz/scant 1 cup coconut milk sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Add the onion and sauté for 1 minute. Stir in the garlic, ginger and other healthy spices and let them sizzle for a further minute, then add the pumpkin and sweet potatoes. Stir well so the vegetables are covered in spices, then pour in the stock. Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down to low and leave to simmer for 10 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft. Cool slightly, then pour into a blender and blend until smooth. Return to the pan and stir in the coconut milk. Heat through, season to taste and serve.

Nutrient Balance (Per Portion)

9% protein, 60% fat, 28% carbohydrate, 3% fibre

Vitamins and Minerals (Percentage of RDA)

Vitamin A 60%, E 20%, C 49%, B1 40%, B3 7%, B5 18%, B6 13%, folate 19%, potassium 33%, calcium 12%, magnesium 16%, iron 26%, zinc 11%, copper 24%

Health Benefits

Promotes good circulation | may help decrease risk of certain cancers

This piece on healthy spices is excerpted from Healing Spices by Kirsten Hartvig © Kirsten Hartvig 2016 published by Nourish Books, London.

About The Author

Kirsten Hartvig is a registered naturopath, medical herbalist, nutritionist and author of 14 books on healthy eating and natural health. She practices at the Riverside Practice in Forest Row, UK and runs health retreats in the French Pyrennees. She also gives workshops and lectures on the healing power of plants. Visit her website here: kirstenhartvig.com

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