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Scientists explore health benefits of spices

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Restaurant and Foodservice

Ginger mixed into holiday cookies or cinnamon on top of breakfast oatmeal might be adding far more than flavor, said researchers who are exploring how spices benefit health. Dr. David Heber, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of California, Los Angeles, said many spices have biological effects even in the amount commonly used in food.

“Four grams of cinnamon can impact insulin on blood sugar,” Heber said. “Ginger can help improve digestion and lead to a reduction in muscle pain.”

Heber’s studies are among those funded by the McCormick Science Institute. Chief Science Officer Dr. Hamed Faridi said MSI’s goal is to find out “how the spices and herbs people consume as part of a regular, healthy diet can help them.” For example, MSI found that adding 1 gram of red pepper to tomato soup allows people to burn more calories during the next four hours.

MSI also supports studies looking at how blends of concentrated antioxidant spices affect oxidation products formed when hamburgers are grilled. Heber said adding spices to meat during cooking reduces the amount of lipid peroxides produced by 70%. Lipid peroxides are linked to cell damage.

Heber, author of “What Color Is Your Diet?,” said he urges people not to eat a “brown and beige diet.” For those who do not like the taste of healthy, colorful fruits and vegetables, adding spices “can make them taste better and give a boost of antioxidant power,” Heber said.

Pomegranate gets attention for its antioxidants, but Heber said a teaspoon of cloves or cinnamon has more antioxidant power than 8 ounces of pomegranate juice.

Spices have been used for thousands of years by many cultures to add flavor to food and for health benefits, but studies are adding scientific data to what were anecdotal reports.

“Bottom line, we are just beginning to learn the amount of spices needed to produce beneficial effects,” Faridi said. “With the exception of cinnamon, there were very little human data with actual spices and herbs that measured such benefits before MSI.”

Research funded by MSI includes controlled dietary intervention, some double blind, meaning researchers and trial participants do not know who is getting intervention. Studies using spices and herbs in regular food are not double blind. Both offer valuable information, Faridi said, because blind studies measure objective endpoints, such as antioxidant capacity in the blood, while blinding is not as important in research that measures subjective endpoints, such as pain.

“Much remains to be learned,” Faridi said, “but because spices and herbs have no significant nutritional downsides — calories, fat, sodium, sugar — and can make healthy foods more appealing from a culinary perspective, it makes sense to consume a variety of them as part of a healthy, balanced diet.”

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