• Ellen Spinner

Spice up your life!

We all know how lovely herbs and spices can be for flavour, but many of them also have the potential to support good health. It’s amazing to look at the measurements of the antioxidant properties of spices and herbs - known as their ORAC score, and to see just how potent they are when compared to other plant foods. Even that score doesn’t give the whole story, because the active compounds in herbs and spices often affect multiple biological pathways in the body and not just through their antioxidant effects. Of course, we don’t tend to use them in the same quantities as other foods, but because they are so concentrated, even adding a teaspoon here and there can boost the nutritional properties of a meal.

Here are a few of my favourites and if you have herbs and spices hanging around in your cupboard, fridge or garden, why not see if you can find more opportunities to get them onto your plate.

1. Rosemary. I prefer fresh, and even though chopping up the leaves can be a bit of a faff, the flavour is so worth it. One of the more interesting characteristics of rosemary is that its scent has been shown to improve memory - so take a sprig into an exam or test. A couple of simple ways to use rosemary are adding it to roasted new potatoes - perhaps around 15 minutes before the potatoes are ready, or to homemade lamb burgers.

2. Oregano. Having developed an addiction to Greek salad (tomato, cucumber, olives, feta and optional green pepper) after my summer holiday this year, I found this the perfect vehicle to use up fresh oregano from the garden - but in Greece, everywhere we ate used the dried stuff. Oregano has powerful anti-bacterial properties and may also help to stimulate bile flow, helping to digest fatty foods, so sprinkling it on a homemade pizza would be a great idea.

3. Cinnamon. Number 3 on the list of foods with the highest ORAC score cinnamon has powerful antioxidant properties. In my work, the feature of cinnamon that is most notable is its ability to enhance the body’s efficient handling of blood sugar. Although we might be used to adding a sprinkle of cinnamon here and there, try adding a good couple of teaspoons to a batch of overnight oats, or stewed apples - often the lovely flavour means that we can cut down on any sweeteners used so it’s a win win.

4. Garlic. The potential health benefits of garlic are enormous and it’s nice to experiment with different types, including black garlic which is completely delicious!. During my nutrition studies, we looked at foods that support healthy blood pressure and whereas some foods had positive effects on one or two of the biological pathways that affect this, garlic had positive effects on all of the ones that were listed!. In order to get the full benefits of using garlic, I’ve had to change the way that I cook with it - crushing it and adding it towards the end of cooking rather than at the beginning, or eating it raw in dressings, guacamole, tzatziki etc. Black garlic is delicious chopped up and added to scrambled eggs.

5. Coriander. Fresh coriander is a bit marmite - you either love it or hate it, I’m a lover, so always looking for an excuse to add it to a meal, whether a curry, dip, salsa or an asian-style tuna-rice salad. Amazingly, coriander has been found to help the body get rid of unwanted heavy-metals - one of many ways that it impacts positively on us. If you’re adding coriander to a curry or chilli, perhaps add a lot more than you’re used to - but always right at the end of cooking. Don’t leave those half-used packets in the fridge until you have to throw them away!

6. Turmeric. If you haven’t been living under a rock for the last few years, you’ll know that turmeric is one of the hottest properties in the food/health world, largely due to the anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin - one of its active compounds. Of course, consuming turmeric in food is unlikely to have the same therapeutic effects as a potent supplement, but it’s all moving things in the right direction. Black pepper seems to help us absorb the helpful compounds in turmeric, so it’s worth using the two spices alongside each other in curries, chilli and soups. I find that turmeric doesn’t have a particularly strong taste, so bumping up the amount suggested in recipes works quite well.

7. Capers. These aren't technically a spice or herb, but they’re used in a similar way and like them, pack a big nutritional punch. They contain large amounts of the flavonoids rutin and quercetin, both of which are important for the body’s production of collagen. Their traditional pairing with smoked salmon is delicious and I also like them thrown in with a nicoise salad or sprinkled on top of roasted vegetables.

This post has just scratched the surface of this huge topic and if you have your favourite spicy or herby food ideas or recipes that you’re happy to share, I would absolutely love to hear about them.

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