Experimenting with spices seems like a fun idea—until you get a little carried away and put the precisely wrong seasoning in a marinade or rub. But that’s no reason to feel intimidated by spices or steer clear of them entirely, save salt and pepper—especially since spices and herbs are super healthy, containing more than 2,000 phytonutrients.
“For millennia, spices and herbs have been praised for their culinary and healing properties,” says Wendy Bazilian, R.D., author of “The SuperFoodsRx Diet”. “I like to think of them as the ultimate place where flavor and nutrition unite.”
We explore 10 spice and herb superstars that are versatile, tasty and most importantly, a healthy addition to your daily dishes.
Foods it pairs best with: Often mistaken for clove, allspice is a welcome addition to recipes that feature chocolate, apples, butternut squash and pumpkin as well as curries and grain dishes such as rice pilaf. “Allspice is also a key ingredient in pickling and adds a nice seasoning when mixed with beets and root vegetables,” notes Bazilian.
Health benefits: Thanks to its active phytonutrients, including eugenol, ellagin acid and quercetin, allspice is believed to play a role in reducing blood pressure, improving risk factors associated with heart disease and certain kinds of cancer, as well as having the potential to reduce menopause-related symptoms. Allspice also has antimicrobial properties. A 2009 study found that essential oils of the spice, along with oregano and garlic, can act as effective barriers against nasty types of bacteria, including E. coli and Salmonella.
Foods it pairs best with: Whether you use fresh or dried basil, this aromatic herb enhances beef, veal, fish and shellfish. It’s also a key ingredient in pesto (a blend of fresh basil, olive oil, pine nuts and Parmesan cheese) and tomato-based sauces. “A simple and classic way to enjoy basil is a caprese salad of fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and basil leaves,” says Rachel Begun, a registered dietitian and proponent of cooking with herbs and spices to add flavor and nutrients to every dish.
Health benefits: Basil is an excellent source of vitamin K, a nutrient essential for regulating blood clotting and maintaining bone health. The herb also contains magnesium, calcium and vitamin A—all of which play a role in cardiovascular health.
Foods it pairs best with: Sprinkle a quarter teaspoon of ground red cayenne pepper to dial up the heat in hummus and guacamole, pizza or even a cup of soup, recommends Bazilian. Or try sprinkling it on tuna salad and chicken salad to give it a kick.
Health benefits: A little cayenne packs quite a vitamin A punch (one teaspoon contains 15 percent of your daily recommendation of vitamin A). With its all-powerful capsaicin compound, cayenne may play a role in weight management, boosting metabolism and helping us feel satisfied faster, according to Bazilian.
Foods it pairs best with: A warm, earthy, nutty spice, cumin is often used in Mexican, Indian and Middle Eastern dishes. It’s often an ingredient in many spice blends and is a great flavor enhancer for bean dishes and bean-based soups, particularly black beans, lentils and chickpeas.
Health benefits: Cumin is a good source of iron and has traditionally been used to aid in digestion. “Research has shown that cumin may stimulate the secretion of enzymes necessary for proper digestion,” Begun says. A 2011 study done on rats found that cumin has anti-stress and memory-enhancing properties.
Foods it pairs best with: Ever-popular garlic adds an aromatic accent to chicken and beef dishes, as well as to zesty sauces and chili.
Health benefits: Researchers have found that garlic may protect you from heart disease thanks to studies showing that certain compounds in garlic relax blood vessels and increase blood flow. “Garlic can help lower cholesterol levels, provide anti-clotting activity and reduce blood pressure,” says Sharon Palmer, R.D., author of “The Plant-Powered Diet.”
Foods it pairs best with: Ginger’s pungent, spicy taste and aroma pairs well with soy sauce, olive oil and garlic in Asian sauces, as well as in marinades and vegetable stir fries. It also goes well with sweet potatoes and carrot dishes. “Ginger has a fantastic flavor that can be mixed with just about anything,” says chef Chad Luethje, executive chef at Red Mountain Resort in St. George, Utah. “It works as well as in gingerbread as it does in an Asian dish.”
Health benefits: Containing several hundred active compounds such as gingerols, beta-carotene, capsaicin and salicylate, ginger has been used for centuries to relieve tummy flare-ups, including gas, diarrhea, nausea and morning sickness. The root also has anti-inflammatory properties and may be helpful for people with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Foods it pairs best with: While most of us reach for oregano when eating pizza or making pasta sauces, Mexican, Turkish and Mediterranean cuisine is just as reliant on the herb, notes Lior Lev Sercarz, chef at La Boite Biscuits and Spices in New York City and author of “The Art of Blending,” who creates custom spice blends for some of America’s best chefs. “You can sprinkle it on anything from salads to breads,” he says. “You’ll discover another layer of complexity.”
Health benefits: Oregano is known for its antibacterial properties—oregano has been shown to provide a protective barrier against bacteria, from E.coli to Listeria. The herb is also a rich natural source of vitamin K and contains even more antioxidants than blueberries.
Foods it pairs best with: A versatile herb, fresh or dried rosemary is an aromatic addition to soups, sautéed vegetables, meats and stews. “It’s a very complex herb that holds up quite well in higher temperatures, too,” Sercarz says.
Health benefits: Prized throughout history for its medicinal value, rosemary is rich in polyphenols, plant compounds that act as strong antioxidants. Even the aroma of rosemary may have benefits—it has been linked to pain relief and mood improvement, says Palmer.
Foods it pairs best with: Known for its alluring aroma, cinnamon is a go-to spice for fall and winter dishes, accenting foods that contain apples, pears, walnuts, winter squashes and sweet potatoes.
Health benefits: Cinnamon contains antimicrobial properties, which explains its traditional use as a natural food preservative. Research also shows that cinnamon helps to slow digestion and, therefore, helps to reduce post-meal blood sugar spikes. “This is particularly helpful for people with type 2 diabetes,” Begun says. What’s more, a 2011 study found that eating a diet rich in spices, including cinnamon, reduces the amount of the triglycerides in your bloodstream after eating a high-fat meal.
Food it pairs best with: A spice that’s easy to incorporate into dishes, turmeric not only creates a rich bright color to any food that it’s added to, but the spice also brings a unique flavor to butternut squash soup and meat marinades, suggests Luethje.
Health benefits: Turmeric may as well be referred to as a “super spice,” Palmer says. The leader in the pack when it comes to nutrition science, turmeric compounds (curcumin) have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities that help protect against cancer, diabetes, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease.
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