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Spices and Herbs For Health, Are they Worth the Hype?

Picture source: Fickr, by: Gavin Bell

Next month, I will be covering a health topic as one of twelve Featured Health Editors of Healthbuzz, from Foodbuzz. My focus for August will be trends in food, health, and fitness and whether they are worth the hype.

What a fun topic to tackle!

I thought I’d kick off this month with spices and herbs. Haven’t you noticed that cooking with these ingredients is becoming the hip, gourmet, and foodie-appeal way? The biggest part of it is the taste. We’re becoming more familiar with spices and seasonings of the west, the east, and everywhere else in between, and we want to add more flavor and “kick” to our food. We are getting exposed to cuisines of the world and we want to bring them home to our kitchens.

What about the health buzz surrounding them? I doubt that every person who sprinkles cinnamon has thought of how it will help lower blood sugar or how can turmeric boost antioxidant level.

But there are sure many people who do think of spices and herbs potential for disease prevention and health promotion. Can they live up to this hype?

I’ve written about turmeric before and it seems to be a very effective antioxidant with the potential of preventing cancers, fighting inflammation, preventing heart disease and diabetes, lowering blood sugar level for people with diabetes, boosting the immune function, and more.

For managing diabetes, several spices and herbs have promising outcomes. Cinnamon helps lower blood sugar level, cumin may prevent or delay diabetic cataract, onions reduce kidney and liver damage associated with uncontrolled blood sugar level, and garlic may prevent cardiovascular complications from occurring along with diabetes.

If you look at a food’s ORAC value, which measures its antioxidant capacity, you’ll see that spices and herbs are way on the top. Spices like cloves, summac, cinnamon, oregano, turmeric, cumin, parsley, basil, curry powder, sage, mustard seeds, ginger, black pepper, thyme, marjoram, and many more head the list.

Great. But there are two downsides to the spices and herbs story.

One: studies that find health promotion or disease prevention outcomes often use special formulations of the spice; an extract or a concentrated pill, that doesn’t reflect how people commonly use this spice in the kitchen and in their cooking.

Two: I’m not a big fan of ORAC values. As I mentioned in a previous post about free radicals and antioxidants, ORAC values measure antioxidant activity against one type of free radicals. But there are many to fight! Not so straightforward afterall!

My bottom line on spices and herbs:

I follow and recommend “do no harm” policy. Spices and herbs for cooking have been used for years since ancient times with no side effects and with potential for health benefits. Even if this potential is not supported by conclusive and strong evidence, or “more studies are needed to recommend X spice for X population” is the conclusion from the latest study, I would not steer away from them! They offer the great potential of you enjoying your food, especially your vegetables! Enjoy them for the color, taste, aroma, and the whole meal experience, and think less of how they could physiologically affect your body from the inside.

Do I recommend a certain spice pill? Absolutely not. Unless you are using it for a specific condition AND under the close supervision of a physician or a registered dietitian, save your money and hit the food market instead.

And since spices can be costly in mainstream grocers, look for ethnic stores in your area. Indian spices tend to be cheaper in Indian stores, and the same goes for Latin, African, Middle Eastern, and Asian spices. For most spices, store in an airtight container in a cool, dry, and dark place.

Question for you:

What are some food, health, and nutrition trends that you would like me to address this month? I have a bunch on my list and would love to research yours as well!

Have a great Wednesday!

Nour

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • rebecca subbiah July 28, 2010, 8:34 pm

    looking forward to seeing your foodbuzz posts

    all the best Rebecca

  • Georgie Fear July 28, 2010, 8:35 pm

    Hi Nour! Wow, I’m excited to read your HealthBuzz content, and I’m eager to hear what topic they’ll give me when my month comes around!

    I think a topic you should consider addressing is normal sugar vs other sweeteners (caloric). There are so many people out there blogging about using agave and honey and dates and boasting that their recipes are “sugar-free” or contain “no refined sugar” as if they have achieved nutritional superiority. To my knowledge none of these are nutritionally better in any way than regular sugar, but I’d welcome your viewpoint where you agree or not. I can always learn more!

    Anyway, congrats and I look forward to your content!

    Georgie Fear RD

  • Georgie Fear July 28, 2010, 8:38 pm

    Whoops! I meant to say “whether you agree or not”. My proofreading skills aren’t up to par. šŸ˜‰

  • Nour El-Zibdeh, RD July 29, 2010, 8:49 am

    Thank you Rebecca!
    Georgie: thanks for the suggestion! My first thought about honey and dates–without any research–is that they are better in terms of what they have over table sugar. Dates have vitamins and minerals and honey is touted for boosting immune function. However, they both are in no means sugar-free!!! I absolutely agree with you on that…I will read more about it.Don’t know much about agave but should! Thanks for the great suggestion and you will definitely see a post about it.

  • eatingRD July 29, 2010, 1:24 pm

    great post! I love using herbs and spices, mostly because they provide such great flavor without adding extra salt. I seem to sprinkle or dump cinnamon on everything šŸ™‚ I’d like you to talk about detox. I wanted to attend the ADA webinar on it but couldn’t justify the price for one. Thanks!

  • Nour El-Zibdeh, RD August 2, 2010, 1:52 pm

    Ooooh. Detox is a big one! Thanks for the suggestion! Don’t you wish you can go to all these awesome webinars and CEUs you hear about????

  • Amanda @ Bakingwithoutabox.com August 4, 2010, 10:30 pm

    Thanks for mentioning the spices for diabetics. I had to study up when my father was diagnosed years ago. So much better to manage it by food rather than insulin when possible. I’d forgotten about onions. I look forward to reading your spice logs!

  • David Haddad August 5, 2010, 6:41 pm

    I work for Maramia Foods and this is my personal opinion.

    I’d really like to see you write about sulfites in dried fruits and their effect on the body.

    Great post on spices, by the way.

  • Nicole August 9, 2010, 11:39 am

    I really look forward to your findings and opinions. To help add to this take a look at http://www.mydorot.com, They are a fresh, frozen, pre-measured herb company who focus on health and convenience.

  • Nour El-Zibdeh, RD August 9, 2010, 10:40 pm

    Amanda: thanks for the comment. Keep in mind that while these spices, herbs, and aromatic veggies can help with diabetes, a diet that has consistent amount of carbohydrates is still what you need to follow to really control blood glucose level. Contact me if you have a specific question about that.

    David: Thank you for the comment. I’ve never read anything about sulfites in dried fruits. Will research it more.

    Nicole: thank you for the comment and link. Will check it out.

  • Ann Marie August 16, 2010, 10:32 am

    Hi Nour,
    I really enjoyed this post, I was just reading and article about how some skincare companies are beginning to put tumeric in their face creams.
    I also think that you should address detox. I read a lot about that, and that it’s a “quick fix,” but is it really? It seems like its not very healthy.

    • Nour El-Zibdeh, RD August 19, 2010, 10:44 am

      Thanks Marie for the comment. I can’t make up my mind yet if nutrients in skin care product are really good (vs. eating them). But, turmeric in ancient Indian times has been used as a beautifying agent (especially for brides) so maybe it does work šŸ™‚ I think I have no choice but to talk about detox! Need to do some research first.

  • Suzy August 24, 2010, 12:00 pm

    Great subject! I believe in food as medicine, and not enough focus is given to this concept in medical circles.

    You’ve probably heard the quote by Hippocrates, “Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food.”

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