The Health Benefits of Spices You Never Knew About

Why should you be making the most of your spice cabinet? Flavor and incredible health benefits, that's why.

Photo by Polka Dot Images/Thinkstock.

When you think about antioxidants, what comes to mind? Probably the typical dark, juicy fruits like blueberries and pomegranates, right? You’re on the right track, but what you might not know is that spices — yes, as in cinnamon, oregano, turmeric and clove — are rich in heart-healthy antioxidants too. In fact, just a half-teaspoon of cloves has as many antioxidants as a half cup of blueberries and new research from Penn State suggests that the antioxidant boost gained by eating fatty, but heavily spiced, foods may cancel out some of the negative effects of the fat. And that’s not even all spices can offer either. Look at cinnamon: it’s a hugely popular spice (and delicious on baked apples) that’s not just packed with antioxidants, but that also has all sorts of anti-microbial, anti-fungal, antiviral, anti-tumor, blood pressure-lowering, cholesterol and lipid-lowering, and gastro-protective properties. Yup, all of that!

Likewise, for all of those curry-lovers out there, every time you get your favorite dish, you’re doing a good thing for your brain: Research suggests that the yellowish pigment in curry, called curcumin, may protect against Alzheimer’s.

So this is all good news! Right? But wait, to get that sort of effect with unhealthy foods, you’re going to need some seriously large amounts of spice (about 14 grams, or approximately four to eight teaspoons). So, a better option is to spice up healthy meals.

Easy to say, right? But for a lot of us, adding spice to meals can be intimidating. I have a fresh container of brightly colored paprika that has been begging to be used, but in what? For the answer to this question and for a few more ideas about how to use spices in general, I talked to Oleana chef, Cassie Kyriakides Piuma, who incorporates all sorts of different spices into Oleana’s signature spicy, delicious dishes.

“Learning the spices that define a specific cuisine will make it easier to incorporate them in a meal,” says Piuma. You could, for instance, create signature blends at home that you can use in a pinch any time you make a relevant dish. Perfect example? Combine a quartet of flavors like ginger, saffron, paprika, and cinnamon for Moroccan-type dishes that you can just throw in a pot of food at a moment’s notice — “a secret arsenal of flavor,” as Piuma puts it.

If you want to try life on the spicier side at home, Piuma offers these quick-and-dirty DIY spice ideas that are perfect for the spice-curious:

  • Nuts and spices go hand-and-hand: Toss some nuts with olive oil and your favorite spice (cinnamon for example) and toast them in your oven. They make a fantastic snack and crunchy salad topping. You could even crush the mixture in a food processor and use it as a crust for meat or fish.
  • Add something simple, like the lemony, tangy sumac berry, to simple vinaigrettes to create a unique, addictive flavor.
  • Toss snacks with spices, including homemade chips, popcorn, or pretzels. “At the restaurant,” says Piuma, “We make vegetable chips out of Tuscan black kale. We rub the raw pieces of kale with olive oil and mustard spices and bake until crispy.”
  • Shake it up with an herb like basil (which has 11 percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin K and anti-inflammatory properties) with fresh feta or mozzarella, mixing it in with olive oil or sprinkling directly on top.
  • “Almost any grain- or rice-based dish can benefit from spices,” says Piuma. Adding herbs and spices like cumin, thyme, or oregano to rice while it cooks, or to sauteed onions mixed in with the grain after the fact gives the entire dish with an unexpected flavor.

How do you incorporate spice in your diet? Please share your recipes and favorite places to buy your spices!