It’s no news that whole spices and herbs are as good for you as they are delicious. They add depth and complexity to foods, as well as a host of health benefits (think antioxidants, anti-inflammatory properties, immunity boosts). If you’re interested in adding all that good stuff, plus wonderful flavors to your go-to dishes (or new specialties), here are five of the healthiest spices and herbs around.
Long used in traditional Eastern medicine for its numerous benefits, turmeric can now be found Stateside in everything from smoothies and soups to teas, salad dressings and more. It’s added to many brands of powdered and prepared yellow mustard to give them that extra-deep hue, and it’s used in beauty products like skin creams and hair conditioners.
Turmeric contains a high concentration of a compound called curcumin, which has antioxidant properties and can help treat inflammation and swelling in muscles and joints and reduce fatty buildup in vital organs. Preliminary research suggests curcumin may slow the spread of — and possibly prevent — some kinds of cancer, as well as liver and heart disease.
There are lots of different kinds of peppercorns, all with helpful attributes beyond adding a little zing to your food. Research has strongly suggested that piperine, a compound in all peppercorns, lowers cholesterol, slows the growth of tumors, prevents oxidative damage and boosts the efficacy of many potent plant chemicals, like curcumin. Turmeric, for instance, should be consumed alongside pepper in order to absorb the highest concentration of curcumin.
Oregano is greatly influenced by its environment. Italian or Sicilian oregano is known for its sweet and spicy notes and is thought to be a hybrid of true oregano and marjoram. Greek oregano is the most common, and interestingly, common oregano — the dried flakes in the shaker at pizza joints — isn’t actually oregano. It’s marjoram, which has a milder, sweeter taste.
The concentrated essential oils within the leaves have powerful astringent and antifungal properties used to treat gastrointestinal imbalances, boost the immune system and alleviate many kinds of skin conditions.
Mustard is that wonderful yellow condiment that goes on everything, and it’s made from tiny yellow, black or brown mustard seeds. Packed with health advantages, mustard seeds are also included in many popular South Asian spice blends, like Bengal panch phoron. They contain protein, calcium, vitamins A and E, and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids that are especially valuable in vegetarian diets. Mustard’s antiseptic properties make it an essential ingredient for optimal digestive health, and its curcumin content, as in turmeric, acts as an anti-inflammatory.
This spice, made from the ground inner bark of the Cinnamonum family of trees, is most famous for adding an earthy sweetness to countless beloved desserts. It’s also the most famous spice in “pumpkin spice.” Cinnamon contains fiber, manganese, iron and calcium as well as numerous bioactive compounds in its essential oil have antimicrobial and anti-clotting properties used in traditional medicine. It’s long been used to improve circulation, and its anti-inflammatory benefits can be used to treat muscle pain and soreness. That dash or two in your morning coffee or pastry may do much more than just add flavor.