The old joke among nutritionists is that America’s favorite “spices” are ketchup and mustard. Their (nerdy) point: Compared to the curries, marinades, and spice-heavy dishes popular in other parts of the world, Americans tend to reach for sauces and dips—not spices—to flavor their foods.
That’s a shame, because more and more research indicates herbs and spices are abundant sources of disease-fighting compounds. From turmeric and thyme to rosemary and cinnamon, spicing up your diet can benefit your health in a lot of different ways.
This root, which is usually sold as a ground powder, features a compound called curcumin. Curcumin gives turmeric its bright orange-yellow hue, and it’s a big component of Indian curry dishes. A lot of recent research suggests curcumin combats inflammation—the stuff that messes with your immune system and drives the spread of cancer. Curcumin also seems to lower your risk for Alzheimer’s disease, finds research from the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas. Curcumin is fat soluble, so by mixing some ground turmeric into dishes that feature olive oil will up the amount of curcumin your body absorbs.
BASIL, ROSEMARY, AND THYME
When you cook meat at high temperatures, the same chemical reaction that browns your steak or chicken also produces heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which have been linked to cancer. But because of the spices’ antioxidant compounds, marinating your meat in basil, thyme, rosemary, and other herbs in the mint family blocks the production of HCAs by 87%, shows research from Kansas State University.
One study from Jacksonville University and the University of Florida found saffron was as effective as prescription drugs at treating depression—and without side effects like headaches or nausea. The authors of that study say specific compounds in saffron may improve brain signaling and chemical makeup in ways that naturally boost your mood. Try sprinkling saffron onto roasted vegetables or mixing it into eggs.
For hundreds of years, people have used ginger root as a remedy for stomach pain and digestive issues. (That’s why your grandfather told you to drink ginger ale for your upset stomach.) Turns out, plenty of research suggests ginger has the ability to speed your body’s digestion of irritants. There’s also evidence ginger can relieve muscle pain and spasms. Roast potatoes with freshly ground ginger, or try some minced ginger on chicken or port.
Eating this tree bark-derived spice may lower your risk for Alzheimer’s disease, finds a study from UC-Santa Barbara. The antioxidant compounds found in cinnamon also seem to block the accumulation of unhealthy triglycerides in your blood, according to a study from Penn State. Just to be clear, we’re talking about ground cinnamon here, not cinnamon sugar or Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
This herb helps your body fight off harmful viruses and microbes, studies have found. Like some of the other spices on this list, it also seems to safeguard your gut from irritation. That’s according to a study from Tufts University. To get all these benefits, that Tufts study suggests sipping mint tea. Mint also goes well in salads featuring cucumber and tomato.
Spices aren’t like vitamins, and there’s no recommended daily amount you need to get to support your health. But by adding them to your meals whenever possible, you’re definitely doing your body some favors.