Spice It Up
Seasonings offer surprising health benefits

By Lynne Eppel

Is there a cancer cure hiding in your oregano jar? The phrase "spice of life" is no mere figure of speech; since ancient times, humans have cured their ills with potent medicines that come from plants, and increasing evidence supports their pharmacological effects. Aside from producing abundant flavor, many common spices may help prevent cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's, and more.

"Many of us know that herbs and spices contribute wonderful tastes to our foods and make food more interesting," says Melanie Polk, RD, director of nutrition education at the American Institute for Cancer Research. "But most people don't know about their significant health benefits." According to Polk, the antioxidant power of herbs and spices is at least as great as that of fruits and vegetables. On top of their health perks, spices help eliminate the need for high-fat flavor enhancers, such as oil and butter.

The Power Four
Herbs and spices received special attention at the International Research Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Cancer, held in July 2002 in Washington, D.C., where researchers noted that many spices may protect against a wide range of chronic illnesses. "We are just beginning to learn about the advantages of herbs and spices," says Polk. "It is highly probable that additional health benefits will be found because each herb and spice is distinctive in the particular phytochemicals it contains, and therefore each is highly specialized in the way it can protect our health."

Four all-stars—oregano, turmeric, rosemary, and ginger—garnered the most airtime at the conference because of their particularly high levels of antioxidants and other phytochemicals. Here are some of their benefits.

Oregano. A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) study shows that oregano, rich in cancer-fighting quercetin, offers the most antioxidant activity of all herbs. Oregano has 42 times more antioxidant activity than apples and 12 times more than oranges per gram fresh weight (Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2001, vol. 49, no. 11). "This is great news," says Polk, "because oregano's flavor is so versatile. You can use it sprinkled on meat, fish, and poultry; in sauces; and in vegetable dishes when you want a Mediterranean, Italian, or Mexican flair."

Turmeric. Curcumin, the substance responsible for turmeric's yellow color, slows the proliferation of prostate cancer cells and protects against cancers of the skin, stomach, and colon (Prostate, 2001, vol. 47, no. 4; Nutrition and Cancer, 1992, vol. 17, no. 1). Researchers also believe it may protect against heart disease and Alzheimer's. At the Cancer Research Institute in Bombay, India, scientists found that turmeric neutralizes certain mutagenic compounds—molecules that disrupt the genetic material of cells, the first step toward developing cancer (Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, 1994, vol. 30, no. 3). Turmeric is a primary ingredient in curry powder and garam masala, spice blends that can contain as many as 20 spices (along with their assorted health benefits).

Rosemary. Carnosol, which is found in rosemary, is a potent compound with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-carcinogenic activity. Some studies show that carnosol detoxifies substances that can initiate breast cancer development (Carcinogenesis, 1995, vol. 16, no. 9), as well as protect against skin and other cancers (Cancer Letters, 1996, vol. 104, no. 1; Cancer Research, 1994, vol. 54, no. 3). "Rosemary is easy to sneak into your diet," says Polk. "It's delicious with many vegetables—especially stirred into green beans, then topped with Parmesan cheese."

Ginger. Ginger is one of the most widely used medicinal herbs in the world. Researchers have demonstrated that ginger performs as well as metoclopramide, an ingredient in motion-sickness drugs, for controlling seasickness and motion nausea (British Journal of Anaesthesia, 2000, vol. 84, no. 3). Zingerone, ginger's spicy compound, is believed to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects and therefore may help protect against cancer. Ginger may also minimize symptoms of the common cold, allergies, and other respiratory conditions by dilating constricted bronchial tubes. "Ginger has been used in the Orient for thousands of years as a medicinal spice as well as in cooking," says Shiow Wang, a biochemist with the USDA's Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland. "I use it in tea, mixing the ginger with honey and lemon juice—it's pungent and bracing and seems to relieve lung and sinus congestion."

Season Generously
Nutrition experts are just beginning to understand the range of health benefits offered by herbs and spices. Most agree that fresh products provide slightly higher levels of protection, but dried forms have plenty to offer, too. Although the exact amounts for better health remain undetermined, the key is to get them into your diet as often and as liberally as possible. Wang advises that people "use more herbs for flavoring instead of salt and artificial chemicals."

"Some herbs should be considered [at mealtime] like regular vegetables," says Wang, based on their similar nutrients. Simply adding spices to your cooking repertoire provides one more way to get nutrient-rich, plant-based foods into your diet. And with spices, adds Polk, "you get a double bonus—great taste as well as health protection."

Lynne Eppel is a food, health, and travel writer.