Health - Diet & Nutrition
By: - at August 19, 2013

Top 15 Healthy Spices From India

Traditional Spices Market In IndiaThe popularity of Indian food comes with a raft of misconceptions, especially from those who mostly encounter it in restaurant settings. To say that all Indian food is spicy, or rich, or fattening or complicated to make is to miss the truth. Traditional Indian cuisine uses fresh ingredients and cooks everything from scratch, which are key to producing healthy, delicious food. It includes a huge array of different fruits and vegetables, and uses cooking methods which preserve their vital nutrients. Many dishes have a good balance of carbohydrates, fats, protein and fiber, just what you need for good health. It's true that Indian cuisine includes some rich fare, but most cuisines include such items. There's room in a healthy diet plan to indulge now and then. Best of all, there's such a broad array of dishes, ingredients and spices to explore that there's little risk of ever getting bored with Indian food.

One of the main characteristics of good Indian cooking is the skillful use of spices. Not all Indian dishes use curry powder – far from it! Indian cooking has honed the art of using spices to perfection, sometimes using a complicated spice mix, sometimes using just one or two key spices to delicately enhance flavor. Even better, a number of Indian spices have known health benefits, besides the simple benefit of being part of great food.


15)  Ginger
Ginger has been recognized for its culinary and health benefits for thousands of years. It is a standard spice in kitchens all over the world, used to enliven a huge array of dishes. But its medicinal uses are nearly as wide and every bit as important.

ginger root and ginger powder

Ginger stands out as a fabulous natural antibiotic agent. One study tested ginger against modern antibiotic drugs in effectively treating staph infections, and found that ginger was every bit as effective, possibly even more so. It is also helpful in treating respiratory illness and other forms of the "common cold." Any time the body is plagued by germ-based illness, ginger's antibiotic properties can help it to fight back more quickly. It is also an effective anti-fungal agent, important because fungal infections are harder to treat than those caused by bacteria or viruses. In tests, ginger's effectiveness against fungal infections has been proven, even against some drug-resistant strains.

It is also beneficial in helping stomach problems, including simple indigestion. Ginger encourages healthy functioning in the whole digestive system, helping the body to process food in the stomach and move it along with a minimum of trouble. It protects the stomach from more serious problems like ulcers, as well.


14)  Chili peppers
Peppers are jam-packed with nutrients of all kinds. They are one of the best sources of Vitamins A and C. One cup of chopped peppers can provide all of your daily requirements of these vitamins! When talking about spices, though, the peppers of particular note are hot, hot, hot. Hot chili peppers and other spicy peppers are loaded with the antioxidant called capsaicin. It is a colorless, odorless, even flavorless compound. What capsaicin provides in chili peppers is not flavor, but heat. It actually stimulates pain receptors on the tongue's nerve cells, which is why a few chilies in a recipe can produce quite a bang!

Ironically, one of the therapeutic benefits of capsaicin is pain relief. It is being studied as a treatment for osteoarthritis pain and pain associated with diabetic neuropathy. It has also been shown as an effective pain treatment for psoriasis. Most of these treatments are topical, medicine applied to the skin rather than ingested. But chili peppers have also demonstrated some cardiovascular benefits, keeping the heart and blood vessels healthy.

chili peppers

Finally, capsaicin in chili peppers helps to clear congestion from the lungs and nasal passages. If you are congested from a cold or allergies, try making a dish with some hot chilies. In addition to clearing away extra congestion, the heat of peppers may be able to get through the dulled sensation of flavors you have when fighting a cold, making some foods more palatable.


13)  Cumin
Cumin is another spice with a long history, used over a wide area of the Mediterranean to parts of China. In the European Middle Ages, it was one of the most accessible spices and therefore one of the most popular. There are even stories about soldiers carrying loaves of bread made with cumin off to war for good luck!

cumin seeds

Cumin may or may not help to bring you home from war safely, but thankfully it has a lot of benefits closer to home. It is a potent seed despite its small size, and a little of it added to a dish can go a long way to changing its flavor. It is being studied for its effects in the body's systems for managing sugars, which makes it of great interest in treating diabetes. Studies using animals have showed that cumin reduces cholesterol and triglycerides and eases pancreatic inflammation. Other studies show cumin improving immune responses in animals with stress-compromised immune systems. It reduced levels of cortisol and adrenalin in the blood, chemicals which are closely related to stress reactions.

Traditional medicine noted that cumin is good for the digestive system, and modern medicine is finding this to be true as well. It is also a source of iron, manganese, calcium, and magnesium.


12)  Coriander or Cilantro
This herb has two names. It is called coriander in India, but better known as cilantro in the U.S. By whatever name, coriander is a common decorative garnish, its pretty leaves adding a nice visual touch to dishes of all kinds. But don't be too quick to push that garnish aside uneaten. Coriander is packed with nutrition, including many essential oils and acid compounds (including ascorbic acid, better known as Vitamin C) and several important minerals including iron and magnesium.

Some of the essential oils in coriander are known to possess antirheumatic and antiarthritic properties. Coriander can help to reduce the painful swelling caused by these conditions. It can also help to reduce other kinds of swelling by stimulating kidney function, helping to remove excess water from the body.

cilantro coriander

Coriander may be especially good for helping to heal a number of skin disorders, such as eczema, dry skin and fungal infections. It is both antibiotic and antimicrobial, helping to kill germs and funguses that cause skin irritations or disease. It has some detoxifying properties, which are beneficial both inside the body and when applied to the skin, because the skin is a big part of the body's system for eliminating toxins. These properties also make coriander useful for treating mouth ulcers, speeding up healing and preventing them from getting worse. It is a common component in all-natural toothpastes because of its antimicrobial properties, helping to protect the teeth and also freshening breath.


11)  Black Pepper
Along with salt, black pepper is the most commonly found spice on American tables. Salt and pepper shakers are available in places where no other spice is handy. This was not always the case. In medieval Europe, black pepper was rare and coveted (cumin was used as a cheaper, more readily available substitute). In other times and places, it has been used as currency and even presented to gods as offerings.

black pepper peppercorns

Today, this "king of spices" is recognized as a good source of iron, manganese, copper and Vitamin K. It promotes digestion from the moment it hits your tongue, stimulating the taste buds in such a way that the stomach begins to increase production of hydrochloric acid. This doesn't sound promising on the face of it, as hydrochloric acid is better known for its industrial uses as a powerfully corrosive acid. But in fact hydrochloric acid is naturally produced by the stomach and is vital for good digestion. If the stomach does not produce enough acid, food may sit in the stomach for an extended period of time, causing indigestion or heartburn. It's also possible for pieces of food to pass through into the intestines without being properly broken down, which can result in gas, diarrhea or constipation. All of these intestinal maladies can be avoided by the stomach producing enough acid to process food, and eating black pepper helps that process.





10)  Cardamom
Cardamom is native to India's evergreen forests and commonly used in Indian cuisine. It also became part of Indian medicine for treating various issues, ranging from mouth ulcers to depression. Related to the ginger plant, cardamom has many of the same digestive benefits as ginger, improving digestive function throughout the body. It is a natural diuretic, meaning it induces the body to release water and stimulates kidney function. This is a boost to the body's detoxification process, flushing out the kidneys, bladder, and urinary tract and removing wastes, extra salt and toxic substances in the process. It also helps the body to fight infection, flushing away harmful microbes.

cadamom pods

Cardamom supports good oral health, helping to quickly heal mouth ulcers and other infections of the mouth and throat. It can relieve bronchitis and coughs, and helps to fight cold and flu symptoms. It lowers blood pressure by removing extra water from the body. And finally, it can even help to stop hiccups. It has anti-spasmodic agents which can ease the diaphragm contractions that cause hiccups, and also other involuntary muscle spasms.


9)  Cloves
Cloves have a special place in U.S. cuisine during the autumn, adding warmth and aroma to pumpkin pie and ginger bread, along with other fall classics. They are actually native to Indonesia and have been a part of Indian cooking and other Asian cuisines for thousands of years. Cloves are nutrient-dense, a marvelous source of manganese, Omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin K, Vitamin C and dietary fiber, just to name a few.

Cloves have high anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. Studies have shown that adding cloves to diets which are already high in inflammatory compounds brings a marked reduction in further inflammation. It can help to protect the body from toxic substances in the environment and has even shown some benefit in fighting digestive-tract cancers.

cloves

Extracts from cloves have found their way out of the kitchen and into dentistry. A substance called eugenol, extracted from cloves, is used during root canal procedures, in making temporary fillings, and for gum pain. Eugenol combined with other substances found in cloves produces a natural, mild anesthetic. It is also anti-bacterial. These two properties together make it clear why clove extracts are so useful in dentistry, preventing pain and supporting oral health.


8)  Cinnamon
Cinnamon is a familiar ingredient in sweet desserts, but it plays a larger role in Indian dishes. It also plays health roles as well. Cinnamon has some anti-microbial properties, helping to protect against infections. It has a preservative effect in foods, helping to stop harmful microbes from growing there as well as in the body. It is a blood-thinner, helping to prevent harmful blood clotting and support cardiovascular health.

ground cinnamon cinnamon sticks

One of the most significant roles of cinnamon in supporting health, however, is in regulating blood sugar. Cinnamon slows the rate at which the stomach breaks down food and empties after meals, which means sugars from your food reach the bloodstream more slowly. This helps to avoid sugar spikes and crashes. For people with diabetes, cinnamon improves the body's response to insulin, the hormone which regulates sugar levels in the blood. Regulating sugar in the body is a vital part of maintaining our health and energy levels, and in preventing diabetes and other chronic diseases.


7)  Bay Leaves
Bay leaves come from the bay laurel plant. This is the same plant from which the Romans made laurel wreaths to crown their emperors, and where we still get the idea of laurels as a symbol of excellence. The bay leaf offers excellent flavor enhancements to soups and stews, and some wonderful health benefits as well.

bay leaves laurel tree

Bay leaves contain several nutrients that are common in this list of health-enhancing spices, such as Vitamins A and C, iron, manganese, magnesium and potassium. Bay leaves also contain eugenol, which as we saw with cloves, is an anesthetic and anti-microbial agent. They help  fight common colds and other illnesses, killing germs and lessening symptoms.

Wound care also benefits from the properties of bay leaves. From antiquity, bay leaves have been understood to help the body heal cuts and other wounds more quickly. Modern science has determined that the leaves of bay laurel are naturally anti-septic, helping to keep wounds clean and germ-free for faster healing. A poultice of bay leaves does the job for cuts, and the oil of bay leaves is good for sprains and bruises.


6)  Nutmeg
Nutmeg is a natural complement for cinnamon in spicing up an apple pie. It is also part of various Indian dishes. Its health benefits range from the gentle to the profound. If you suffer from insomnia, drink a cup of milk sprinkled with nutmeg powder. Nutmeg helps the body to relax and thus induces sleep. Nutmeg can be used as a skin product to fight acne and promote smoother skin. Use a scrub made from nutmeg mixed with orange lentil powder to remove blackheads, and nutmeg mixed with honey to make a paste can help make the marks of acne on the skin less noticeable.

Eat nutmeg to help digestive health and also to detox the liver and kidneys. It helps to remove extra gas from the stomach and intestines and promotes the healthy working of the entire digestive system, which also aids the liver’s detoxification function. Nutmeg has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries as a pain reliever. It is effective to fight inflammation and to ease abdominal pain. Nutmeg can also help to ease aching joints and muscle pain.

nutmeg

Finally, nutmeg can help to stimulate healthy brain function, which means it can also help to relieve fatigue and stress. It may have beneficial effects against depression and anxiety symptoms, and improves concentration levels, vital for serious students and hard-working adults alike.


5)  Saffron
Saffron is an ancient spice, used and cultivated for thousands of years, and it remains the most expensive spice in the world today. Production of this spice is extremely labor-intensive, and it takes up to 80,000 flowers of the saffron crocus plant to produce just 500 grams of the dried spice. It may be too dear to use every day or in large quantities, but saffron has also been recognized as a medicinal plant from ancient times. Traditional medicine prescribed it for stomach aches and kidney stones, and to improve blood circulation. Modern research suggests that saffron may be anticarcinogenic, helping to protect against the development of cancer in the body. There are also studies showing that saffron may be especially good for protecting eye health. Saffron may protect the eyes from harmful effects of bright sunlight, and it may also slow down macular degeneration and help improve vision in people who suffer from cataracts. One trial showed that every single person involved who took saffron showed improvements in their vision.

saffron flowers dried saffron


4)  Fennel
Fennel is often associated with Mediterranean cuisine, but it appears in Indian dishes as well. The whole plant is edible from root to leaves, and it contains a long list of nutrients and minerals, including Vitamin C, Vitamin B3, potassium, manganese, folate, calcium, magnesium, iron, copper and a good dose of dietary fiber.

fennel seeds

This plant contains a mix of phytonutrients, or naturally-developing chemical compounds which grow in plants, which have especially good antioxidant properties. Antioxidants are important for neutralizing molecules in the body called free radicals. These molecules have an unbalanced chemical structure, owning either too many or too few electrons, which gives them a negative or positive charge. They bounce around in the body, trying to balance their structure by shedding or stealing electrons, and in the process can damage healthy cells, proteins or even DNA.

Antioxidants are substances which neutralize these free radicals, by combining with them to form stable molecules and therefore removing their ability to damage other cells. Free radicals are always present in our bodies, as some of our most basic bodily functions create them (including breathing). So we always need to consume a range of antioxidants like those present in fennel to neutralize these free radicals and protect our bodies from excessive damage.


3)  Oregano
This herb belongs to the mint family, though its flavor is much sharper and more pungent than many kinds of mint. But oregano gives a lovely boost to many dishes, including lots of Indian cuisine, and also great health effects.

fresh oregano dreid oregano

Oregano has a good combination of iron, manganese and Vitamin A and it is good for boosting immune health. Some of the compounds present in oregano help to relieve upset stomachs and other digestive ailments. Chewing a few leaves of fresh oregano can help to relieve menstrual cramps and can be taken for several days if symptoms persist. It also relieves severe congestion in the lungs.

Instead of eating fresh or dried oregano, some of these benefits can be obtained from oregano oil. Add a few drops to a glass of water or use it topically to aid in fighting skin infections. But don’t miss out on oregano’s punch in food either, in dishes which can range from the Mediterranean to the Pacific!


2)  Garlic
Several medical studies have sought to identify diets associated with good hearth health. These diets generally include plentiful fruits and vegetables, which is no surprise. But so far, the common spice found between all such diets is garlic. Many ancient cultures, Indians among them, have used it as both spice and medicine. Medical studies have confirmed that garlic has significant benefits in preventing or slowing cardiovascular disease. Garlic reduces cholesterol and increases anti-oxidants. It is a natural blood-thinner, inhibiting the formation of dangerous blood clots, and can also help to reduce blood pressure.

garlic

Garlic helps the body to absorb iron, a vital ingredient in a healthy blood system. Iron is a key component of hemoglobin, the substance which enables your blood cells to carry oxygen from the lungs throughout the body. Without enough iron, you may find yourself getting tired and winded, no matter if you are otherwise in great shape. Garlic also has anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties. It can help the body to overcome infections and colds, and can be used to treat skin conditions resulting from fungal infections. Some new studies are focusing on garlic's influence on the development of fat cells in the body. Early-stage research shows that garlic may help to regulate the number of fat cells the body creates, which could help maintain a healthy weight and boost overall health. Finally, garlic contains compounds which might inhibit the development of cancer.


1)  Turmeric
Turmeric goes back a long way in Indian and Chinese medicine. It was recognized as an anti-inflammatory agent and prescribed to treat a wide range of issues including chest pains, menstrual problems, healing wounds, stomach and liver problems, even toothaches and gas! Today turmeric has been shown to reduce cholesterol and to lower high concentrations of triglycerides, both of which are important in treating the effects of obesity and in helping people to reduce their weight. Its anti-inflammatory properties could help in treating many illnesses, because inflammation is increasingly recognized as a factor in nearly every form of chronic disease.

fresh tumeric dried tumeric powered tumeric

Inflammation is a natural part of the body's defense system against harmful infection. Sore throats and rashes are caused by healthy inflammation. But it's possible for inflammation to run out of control. Allergies, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis are examples of what happens when inflammation gets out of hand. Even more seriously, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other chronic illnesses have inflammation as one of their sources. Traditional Indian medicine is right in prescribing turmeric and other naturally anti-inflammatory foods or spices for a long list of illnesses.


Conclusion
These and other spices clearly help the body to thrive, keeping our natural systems in balance and defending us against microbial invaders. All of this comes on top of making Indian food, and foods from other cuisines, taste great. It's not hard to take your medicine when it comes like this: with fresh foods and a lot of variety of flavors!

Just like any kind of medicine, be aware that taking more is not always better. If you are dealing with heart disease, eating more garlic is not going to make everything better by itself. Too much of any particular spice could cause your body to react in negative ways, and if you are already taking medications, too much of a spice that interacts badly with that medicine could be bad news indeed.

The best way to enjoy the valuable health benefits of these and all spices is to incorporate them in a healthy, balanced diet. Take the example of Indian food and eat lots of different foods, including a large variety of fruits and vegetables along with lean meats and whole grains. If you don't cook at home, it's easier than you think! Learn some basic skills and start exploring these and other spices. Search out simple Indian dishes to get you started on your flavor exploration, and in the process, you'll give your body more of what it needs to be strong, healthy, and vitally alive.


 

 

 

 

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