For centuries, herbs and spices have been used for culinary purposes, to enhance our savoring experiences through taste, aroma and color, as well as to preserve foods; in addition, traditional medicine has been using herbs, spices, & seasoning blends for medicinal purposes, both preventively and therapeutically.
Modern technologies used in research have confirmed what our ancestors already knew about spices and herbs: they are rich in natural compounds with therapeutic effects, from antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, to anticarcinogenic and cholesterol-lowering properties. Tannins, flavonoids, alkaloids and vitamins are some of the bioactive compounds that confer medicinal benefits to herbs and spices, such as clove, rosemary, sage, oregano and cinnamon.
Long term consumption of spices may protect us even against the development of acute and chronic diseases, helping us to maintain our health. Although the potential benefits of seasoning spices and herbs in protecting us against infectious, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases cannot be negated, it is only in recent years that the Western world has taken a keen interest in studying them extensively. Culinary herbs and spices possess antioxidative, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumorigenic, anti-carcinogenic and glucose- and cholesterol-lowering activities. Indeed, spices may affect cognition and mood, as well as the gut microbiota, relating to risks of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and other chronic conditions.
On average, up to 10% of Americans, surveyed in a US National and Health Nutrition Examination Survey, declare using spices such as ginger and chili pepper for health benefits (1), reasons for this being the lack of side effects of spices, the increased availability compared to traditional medicines, as well as the known health benefits of spices.
When surveyed about their predicted use of spices and herbs, about half of the participants in another study were interested in learning more about the health benefits of spices and admitted to currently using one or more spices, such as ginger, garlic or cinnamon, on a daily basis to promote their health and wellbeing (2).
Surely enough, in a long term study of health benefits of spices in a Chinese cohort, eating spicy foods almost every day decreased the risk of death by 14%, compared to consuming spicy foods less than once a week (3).
Interestingly, the consumption of spicy flavors reduced the salt intake and the blood pressure of participants in a randomized controlled trial (4), presumably by modifying the brain’s processing of the salty taste.
Given the close association of several metabolic diseases and age-related neurodegenerative diseases with oxidative processes in the human body, further research should focus on the use of herbs and spices as sources of antioxidants and the effects they have on specific markers of oxidation, upon consumption. And with time, we hope to see an even greater increase in the scientific evidence indicating the benefits of spices and culinary herbs in the overall maintenance of health and disease prevention.
1. Barnes PM, Bloom B, Nahin RL. Complementary and alternative medicine use among adults and children: United States, 2007. Natl Health Stat Report. 2008(12):1-23.
2. Isbill J, Kandiah J, Khubchandani J. Use of ethnic spices by adults in the United States: An exploratory study. Health Promot Perspect. 2018;8(1):33-40.
3. Lv J, Qi L, Yu C, Yang L, Guo Y, Chen Y, et al. Consumption of spicy foods and total and cause specific mortality: population based cohort study. Bmj. 2015;351:h3942.
4. Li Q, Cui Y, Jin R, Lang H, Yu H, Sun F, et al. Enjoyment of Spicy Flavor Enhances Central Salty-Taste Perception and Reduces Salt Intake and Blood Pressure. Hypertension. 2017;70(6):1291-9.