BY CAROLYN O’NEIL
It turns out that a pinch of red pepper or dash of curry powder not only turns up the heat to boost flavors in dishes, but it also can add a helping of health benefits, too.
Nutrition research supports new reasons to season dishes with herbs and spices including cinnamon, ginger, oregano, red pepper and yellow curry powder. Blueberries, pomegranates and other deeply colored fruits may be famous for their high antioxidant content; but it turns out that some spices rank really high, too.
One teaspoon of cinnamon has the disease fighting antioxidant power of a full cup of pomegranate juice or half cup of blueberries. The specific kind of antioxidant compounds found in cinnamon called polyphenols have been shown to help regulate blood sugar levels and fight inflammation which can increase risk for heart disease and diabetes.
Feel even better about the cinnamon sprinkled on your oatmeal? But don’t try to use this spicy news to help justify downing one of those huge cinnamon buns at the mall. Controlling total fat and calories in your diet still reigns supreme as the most important rule in good nutrition. With that in mind, it’s interesting to note that spices might come to rescue there, too.
Red Chile Pepper gets heat from a powerful antioxidant compound called capsaicin. Spicing up your meal with red pepper flakes or hot chile sauces may also help increase satiety so you eat less. Other studies found red peppers, even milder sweet red peppers, boost your metabolism so you burn a few more calories. Other studies suggest that some seasonings such as cayenne pepper, chili powder and paprika may help curb hunger pangs and boost the metabolism, making it a bit easier to stick to a weight control diet.
Executive chef Piero Premoli of Pricci restaurant in Atlanta adds a touch of heat to vegetables, seafood, pasta dishes and risotto and jokes, “I put it on my cereal in the morning!” For Pricci’s menu in October featuring recipes from Sicily, Premoli prepares swordfish with a glaze of Sicilian Marsala wine with pickled Calabrese red peppers, white balsamic vinegar, olive oil and garlic. “This dish is a classic mix of hot and sweet. The cuisine of Sicily is known for its use of chiles, heat and spices,” Premoli said.
Ginger has long been used as a natural remedy to soothe an upset stomach. Now research focusing on one of its active ingredients called gingerol suggests it may work like anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin or ibuprofen. Is your mouth burning from the wasabi served with sushi? Pick up that piece of fresh ginger on the plate.
Oregano has the highest antioxidant levels of the dried herbs because of its rosmarinic acid content. Used heavily in Mediterranean cuisines, oregano has antimicrobial powers that can help fight bacterial growth and may help inhibit the bacteria associated with ulcers.
Yellow curry powder is a blend of tumeric and other spices. Curcumin, the bright yellow pigment in tumeric, helps fight heart disease and may boost brain health, possibly protecting against Alzheimer’s disease. You may associate curry primarily with the Indian or Thai cuisine, but Premoli shares the secret to his sauce for Pricci’s seafood with linguine, “I add a hint of cumin based red curry, something I learned from a chef in Liguria.”
More Spice, Less Fat, Sugar and Salt
Of course one of the best ways that spices can contribute to the enjoyment of a healthy diet is by taking the place of other seasonings that are high in fat, sugar or salt. Herbs and spices are classified as calorie-free and salt-free.
So the oregano in Greek and Italian dishes, cinnamon in the recipes of Morocco, chiles in Mexican cuisine and tumeric in the curries of India and Thailand not only enhance the fragrance and flavor of foods, but they also play a significant role in the overall nutrition of meals.
What’s a spice? A spice may be the bud (clove), bark (cinnamon), rhizome (ginger), berry (peppercorn), aromatic seed (cumin), or flower stigma (saffron) of a plant.
What’s an herb? An herb is generally defined as the leaf of a plant (rosemary, oregano, thyme, coriander) in cooking, but any other part of the plant, often drie, can be a spice.
Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and co-author of “The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!” E-mail her at carolyn@ carolynoneil.com.