Throughout history, wars have been waged, trade routes have been established, and new lands have been discovered—all in the name of spices. Marco Polo traded spices during his travels throughout the world. Christopher Columbus was in search of new water routes to find black pepper and cinnamon when he stumbled upon the Americas.
From ancient Egypt to ancient India, from Ayurvedic science to Traditional Chinese Medicine, spices have been used to heal as much as to flavor food. Today, new scientific research backs up many of the old folkloric medicinal uses for spices.
Spice Grinding and StorageSpices are most potent if purchased whole and ground in small amounts when used. It’s best to buy organic spices that have not been irradiated. Many spices, such as star anise, cumin seed, and fennel seed, can be lightly toasted in a dry pan to enhance flavor before grinding. Spices can be ground using a coffee or spice grinder, or by hand with a mortar and pestle. Pre-ground spices are best stored in a cool, dark location and used within a year. Whole spices can typically last for several years.
Let’s take a look at six spices with incredible healing properties, plus a few recipes to help savor these spice flavors.
Black PepperThis zesty dried berry was first brought to Europe from India’s Malabar Coast during the Dark Ages. Black pepper was once more valuable than gold, and only the wealthiest could afford it. Today, most black pepper comes from Vietnam, but black pepper from the Malabar Coast is still considered the highest-quality black pepper by spice connoisseurs. Black pepper is not botanically related to bell peppers or chili peppers; Columbus confused the spices when he landed in the Americas and misnamed bell and chili peppers.
Black pepper oil has the potential to help post-stroke patients with swallowing, and to help reverse skin pigmentation in vitiligo. One of the most powerful phytonutrients found in black pepper is piperine, which can have multiple healing benefits, including:
- Increasing the bioavailability of some drugs (making them more effective)
- Having anti-tumor and anti-cancer effects in the colon, breasts, and prostate
- Easing joint inflammation in arthritis
- Helping to prevent Alzheimer’s disease and memory loss
CinnamonMade from dried tree bark, cinnamon is usually eaten as a powder, although whole cinnamon sticks can also be consumed. Most cinnamon eaten in the United States, Europe, and Asia is not true cinnamon, but comes from a close-cousin tree called cassia. In Europe, the spice is actually called cassia, not cinnamon. True cinnamon is more commonly found in Mexico, Latin America, and India.
Cinnamon is known for its ability to stabilize blood sugar and help pre-diabetics avoid diabetes. But cinnamon does much more than control blood sugar. It can also help:
- Prevent the growth of bacteria
- Fight cancer
- Improve wound healing
- Prevent high blood pressure and heart disease
CloveThese dried flour buds are native to Moluccas, Indonesia, and today are grown from South America to North Africa. Cloves were traditionally used for all sorts of mouth and gum issues, and weren’t added to food until the Middle Ages. Today, Americans use more than 1,000 tons of cloves a year, mostly during the holidays.
Cloves, with active phytochemicals such as eugenol, have shown efficacy for the following:
- Treating gum disease and toothaches, and even as a numbing mouth antiseptic
- Fighting H. pylori bacteria (which cause ulcers and can lead to stomach cancer)
- Preventing or inhibiting
- Stopping cancer cells from multiplying in lab tests
CocoaThe tropical tree that grows cacao beans is native to Mexico and Central America. The ancient Aztecs used cocoabeans as currency, called their cocoa-based drink “the nectar of the gods,” and used it medicinally and ceremoniously. It is interesting to note that the indigenous Kuna of Panama, who eat the highest cocoa content in the world, have virtually no heart disease.
Cocoa contains some of the highest levels of flavanols of any plant. This is great news if you love chocolate; just be sure to eat 74 percent cocoa content or higher to get the most health benefits. There is also some evidence to show that milk combined with cocoa negates the flavanols’ beneficial effect, so ditch that milk chocolate.
Besides helping to preventing heart disease, cocoa has been shown to:
- Improve cognitive function
- Lower blood pressure and create more flexible arteries
- Decrease risk of stroke
- Reduce risk of heart disease
- Aid in mental energy
- Improve skin elasticity and reduce wrinkles
SaffronThe most expensive spice in the world, saffron, is actually the pollen-covered stigma from the blue crocus flower. The stigma must be picked by hand during a short three-to-four-day season. Currently worth about $5,000 per pound, it takes 80,000 stigma to make one pound of saffron. Historically, saffron was used to dye monks’ robes a vibrant yellow-orange hue, and the phytochemicals are powerful medicines for treating a wide variety of ailments. Due to saffron’s high cost today, imposter saffron (safflower stigma coated with turmeric) is on the rise. To find quality saffron, look for dark orange-red threads, and purchase from reputable sources.
Current research has shown saffron to be as effective as fluoxetine in treating depression. Saffron can also help:
- Combat Alzheimer’s disease
- Reduce menstrual cramps and PMS
- Resolve male infertility and erectile dysfunction
- Fight breast cancer
- Slow development of multiple sclerosis
Star AniseThe chief ingredient in Chinese five-spice powder, star anise originally hails from China. In Asian cuisine, star anise is used in soups and stews, and is the signature flavor of Vietnamese pho and Peking duck.
True star anise is always an eight-pointed star. Imposter star anise (Japanese star anise) has ten or more points and is toxic. There have been several cases of the two being confused when being used in remedies and teas. Always buy spices from a reputable source to know what you’re getting.
Star anise is not botanically related to anise seed (fennel seed), although they both contain the phytonutrient anethole, which has anti-cancer effects. Star anise also contains the beneficial shikimic acid, a major compound in the flu-fighting Tamiflu medicine, so it’s not surprising star anise has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to fight phlegm and flu for thousands of years. It also shows promise and success in treating the following conditions:
VanillaThis tropical orchid bean is native to Mexico, and is pollinated by only one species of bees in Central America. Vanilla bean orchids must be pollinated by hand, which makes vanilla second only to saffron in cost. Although Mexican vanilla is well known and some prefer it, French Bourbon vanilla beans from Madagascar are considered to make the highest quality vanilla.
From a health standpoint, vanilla beans have been found to contain more than 200 phytonutrients, including vanillan, which can aid with treatment of sickle cell disease. Because the demand for vanilla outweighs the supply, there are many types of vanilla flavorings and imitations that don’t contain any of the beneficial vanillan phytonutrients. Be sure you’re purchasing pure vanilla extract.
Now that you know how some of these spices can enable you to stay healthy, here are two recipes and a guide for creating the Chinese five-spice powder to help you get more of these healing flavors into your diet.
Black Pepper Saffron RiceThis Indian rice dish is packed with healing spices like black pepper, saffron, coconut oil, and cumin.
- 2 cups basmati rice
- 3 1/2 cups broth (chicken or vegetable)
- 1 pinch saffron threads (soaked in 2 tablespoons hot water for 10 minutes)
- 1 tablespoon coconut oil
- 2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
- 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup sliced almonds
Wash and drain the rice. In 4-quart pot, add rice, broth, saffron, and soaking water. Bring to a boil over high heat.
Once it starts boiling, immediately cover and turn to low heat.
Let the rice cook on low heat, undisturbed, for 20 minutes. Turn off heat. Let sit, covered, for another 5 minutes to finish steaming. Use a fork to fluff up the rice and cool for about an hour.
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium high heat until hot, but not smoking. Add mustard and cumin seeds, cover and sauté until mustard seeds start to pop (about 30 seconds).
Add onions and cook for another minute or two. Add the cooked rice, mixing well. Add the black pepper, ground cumin, and salt, and mix well. Stir in the sliced almonds and serve.
Makes 8 servings
Quinoa BrowniesGet a healthy dose of cocoa with vanilla, ginger, and a few other spices in this tasty treat.
- 1 cup quinoa flour (you can grind your own with a spice grinder)
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 pinch sea salt
- 1/2 cup coconut sugar
- 2 large eggs at room temperature
- 2/3 cup coconut oil
- 1/2 cup cocoa powder, unsweetened
- 1/4 cup crystalized ginger, diced
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
- 1/4 cup toasted almonds
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Coat an 8-inch-by-8-inch baking pan with coconut oil.
In a small bowl, mix the quinoa flour, baking powder, and salt.
In a large bowl, beat together the sugar, eggs, coconut oil, cocoa powder, ginger, and cardamom. Stir in dry ingredients and mix well. Stir in the almonds.
Pour mixture into greased pan and bake for 20 minutes or until done (toothpick or knife comes out clean). Let cool and serve at room temperature.
Makes 16 servings
Chinese Five-Spice PowderThis spice mix is a staple of Chinese food and can be added to a variety of Chinese and Vietnamese dishes, meats, or noodles. Experiment to come up with new creations for this power-house of healing spices.
- 3 star anise
- 2 tablespoons Szechuan peppercorns (found at Asian or Indian groceries; these are not the same as black peppercorns)
- 1 tablespoons fennel seeds
- 1 tablespoons whole cloves
- 1 three-inch cinnamon stick
Grind all spices together in a spice grinder until a fine powder. Keep in an airtight container in a cool, dark location for up to six months.
Makes 1/4 cup
To learn more about the healing properties of spices, read Healing Spices, by Bharat B Aggarwal, PhD.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.