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Spices are plant-based substances used to add flavour and colour to food, and have immense health benefits. Spices are derived from the roots, barks, fruits, seeds and leaves of plants, but should not be confused with herbs - which are mostly used for garnishing and flavouring. While many people find the use of whole spices convenient, most spices are also found in ground or blended forms.

Traditionally, spices are grown and used in regions with warmer climates. The uses are not just culinary but also ritualistic and cosmetic in nature in countries like India. Spice trade dates back centuries, and predominantly grew out of the Indian subcontinent, East Asia and the Middle East. The medicinal properties and health benefits of spices are especially celebrated in these parts of the world, so much so that most home remedies for minor and major ailments include individual or a mix of spices.

India is currently the world’s largest producer of spices, and of the 109 varieties of spices listed by the International Organization for Standardisation (ISO), India produces and exports 75 types. This export is not just of spices like pepper, chilli, turmeric, ginger, cardamom, coriander, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, celery, nutmeg, mace, garlic, tamarind and vanilla; but also of processed spices like spice oils, oleoresins, mint products, curry powder, spice powders, blends and seasonings.

  1. Types of spices
  2. Nutritional value of spices
  3. Health benefits of spices
  4. Side effects of spices
  5. How to use spices
  6. Takeaways

Types of spices

Spices are usually classified on the basis of the parts of plants and trees they are derived from. The following are the major classifications of spices based on botanical origins.

Nutritional value of spices

Spices generally have a strong aroma and flavour, and are used in small quantities. So, they don’t usually add any extra calories to food. While the nutritional value of spices varies from type to type, most spices are rich sources of protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats, vitamin A, vitamin B6, and minerals like sodium, potassium, calcium, iron and magnesium. Most spices are also rich in antioxidant compounds like polyphenols and flavonoids.

Health benefits of spices

Spices have a wide variety of medicinal properties, most of which can be used to cure acute and chronic (also called non-communicable) diseases. While most of these benefits are well known in countries like India, where spice production and use dates back to ancient times, countries like the USA are only recently learning of them. Here are some of the benefits you can reap by consuming spices.

  1. Spices reduce inflammation
  2. Spices to fight diabetes
  3. Spices aid weight loss
  4. Spices relieve nausea and indigestion
  5. Spices may improve heart health
  6. Spices may improve skin quality
  7. Spices for treating infections
  8. Spices for fighting cancer
  9. Spices aid food preservation
  10. Spices as aphrodisiacs

Spices reduce inflammation

Inflammation is the body's natural response to harmful pathogens and stimuli, and is usually acute or chronic in nature. Spices have been extensively used to treat inflammation, and recent studies have supported this practice. A study published in the Journal of Translational Medicine in 2018 confirms that nutraceuticals derived from spices like clove, coriander, garlic, ginger, onion, pepper, turmeric, etc target inflammatory pathways and can therefore prevent, treat and cure various chronic diseases like arthritis.

Spices to fight diabetes

Many spices, like cinnamon, add a sweet flavour to food without adding to the blood sugar levels of the body. These spices contain high concentrations of cinnamaldehyde, a compound that helps slow down the rate of carbohydrate breakdown and improves insulin sensitivity. Fenugreek seeds and ginger have proven to be equally beneficial for prediabetes and diabetes treatment because they help control blood sugar levels.

Spices aid weight loss

Most spices are rich in antioxidants that boost the metabolic rates of the body. These include spices like pepper, chilli, cinnamon, fennel, fenugreek, cardamom, and cayenne pepper. These spices are effective digestive stimulants and have diuretic properties that flush out toxins in the body much faster and more effectively. Even a simple tea made with a blend of these spices can help you along on your weight loss journey.

Spices relieve nausea and indigestion

It doesn’t matter if you are feeling nauseated because of an upset stomach or during your pregnancy, spices are good at relieving nausea and indigestion. Spices like ginger, cardamom, carom, cumin, fennel and cloves have diuretic and antioxidant properties, and consumption of these spices - whole, ground or in tea - can get rid of nausea as well as related issues like gas and bloating in a flash.

Spices may improve heart health

There are a number of spices which are effective against cardiovascular diseases and can help you maintain heart health. Garlic has an active compound called allicin, which inhibits the rise of artery-clogging low-density lipoproteins and maintains blood circulation. Curcumin, which is present in turmeric, can prevent myocardial infarctions or heart attack. Ginger and ginger extracts can inhibit aortic atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries of the heart. Black pepper, cinnamon and coriander have similar contributions to heart health.

Spices may improve skin quality

Most spices are full of antioxidant, antibacterial and antifungal properties, and can help you get clear and glowing skin. A number of spices are so effective in this case that apart from ingesting them, topical applications are also recommended. Turmeric’s role in this regard is exceptionally celebrated, with the ground spice being even ritualistically applied to brides and grooms on their wedding day. Cinnamon, nutmeg, fennel, ginger, etc are also known to improve skin quality when blended and applied topically.

Spices for treating infections

Because of their highly-effective antimicrobial properties, most spices are natural cures for infections. Spices like cloves, turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, black pepper, carom, asafoetida and cumin are particularly good at boosting your immunity and keeping fungal infections and bacterial infections at bay.

Spices for fighting cancer

Spices like turmeric, black cumin, ginger, garlic, saffron, black pepper and chillies are considered to be especially effective in the treatment of cancers and the reduction of tumours. These spices are known to contain several bioactive compounds like curcumin, thymoquinone, piperine and capsaicin. A study published in the journal Nutrients in 2016 showcased how these compounds induce apoptosis (or death) of tumour cells, inhibits their proliferation, migration and invasion. The study also noted that adequate levels of these compounds in the body make tumours more receptive to radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

Spices aid food preservation

Apart from keeping your body healthy, spices can also ensure the safety of the food you consume. Many spices like clove, cinnamon, cumin, thyme and oregano, have antibacterial and antifungal properties that inhibit the growth of bacteria (Bacillus subtilis, Pseudomonas fluorescens), pathogens (Staphylococcus aureus, Vibrio parahaemolyticus) and fungi (Aspergillus flavus) that can spoil food. Cook your food with these spices and you can preserve them longer and eat them without fearing infections.

Spices as aphrodisiacs

A number of spices have been proven to work as natural aphrodisiacs, particularly because these spices trigger an increase in certain hormones associated with a raised libido. The saponins in fenugreek can increase the growth of testosterone, and raise male libido. Fennel can increase estrogen levels and work the same way. Saffron, nutmeg, garlic and ginger increase levels of arousal and vaginal lubrication lubrication. Ginseng is often used to naturally treat erectile dysfunction.

Side effects of spices

In general, spice consumption has no side effects and is considered to be safe for consumption. However, individual reception and response to various spices can be negative, especially if the spiced food or drinks you are consuming are not prepared or stored safely, or if you overeat them. Here are some of the negative reactions that are associated with the consumption of spices.

  1. Severe allergic reaction to spices
  2. Skin rash due to spices
  3. Diarrhea caused by spicy food
  4. Asthma due to spice inhalation
  5. Hemorrhoids caused by spices
  6. Salmonella contamination and spices

Severe allergic reaction to spices

Though rare, anaphylaxis or a severe allergic reaction has been reported in some cases in the USA, especially due to consumption of spices like coriander, caraway, cumin, oregano and thyme. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also recalled certain batches of ground cumin from time to time because peanuts are sometimes used as fillers in packaged spices, which can cause anaphylactic shock due to peanut allergy.

Skin rash due to spices

A number of spices are hot and can cause contact dermatitis or a red, itchy rash when they come in touch with skin. This is more likely to happen with spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, which pack a lot of heat.

Diarrhea caused by spicy food

Overeating spiced or spicy food can cause nausea, upset stomach and diarrhea in extreme cases. Once again, this is because spicy food usually generates a lot of heat in the body, which can destroy the natural flora of the stomach and its lining.

Asthma due to spice inhalation

Inhaling spices, accidentally or intentionally, can often trigger symptoms of asthma, like coughing, wheezing, tightness in the chest and throat, and feeling of anxiety or panic. This can particularly be caused by pepper and chilli powders.

Hemorrhoids caused by spices

Many people believe that eating spicy food can irritate anal fissures and cause hemorrhoids or piles, but recent studies have proved this to be a myth. A study by researchers based out of the University of Bari Aldo Moro, Italy in 2006 gave hemorrhoid patients chilli capsules and a placebo for a week, to finally conclude that spicy food (specifically chilli peppers) do not worsen the symptoms of hemorrhoids.

Salmonella contamination and spices

In September 2019, the USFDA took a few batches of MDH’s Sambhar Masala powder out of circulation because of salmonella contamination. This might seem unusual, especially since spice blends are usually safe to consume, but a report by the FDA in 2013 revealed that ground spices and spice blends are very easily contaminated. This contamination is usually due to the presence of bacteria like Salmonella, Bacillus cereus, Clostridium perfringens, etc as well as filth like insects, excrement, hair and other materials.

How to use spices

Since spices have a huge number of benefits, it’s best to include them in your daily life and routine. There are a number of ways you can use spices to assure good health.

  • Cooking is the most obvious way to include spices in your diet. Spices are easily available in the market in whole, ground and blend forms. You can choose certain spices or add generous mixes and blends to boost flavour and nutritional values of food. 
  • Spices can work well as preservatives, so you can add them to homemade foods to prolong their shelf life. This application is most often seen in the case of pickles.
  • Home remedies to treat a few minor health issues can also include spices. You can make face packs with spices like turmeric, nutmeg and cinnamon to relieve symptoms of acne and get glowing skin. You can also apply turmeric paste on small cuts and bruises - the antiseptic properties of turmeric will help heal wounds faster. 

Takeaways

Spices have immense health benefits and are usually considered to be safe for regular consumption without the risk of severe reactions. In the long term, the inclusion of spices in your diet can help boost your immune system and aid the fight against diseases like arthritis, cancer, diabetes and infections. Spices are very easily available, even though some types - like saffron - can be very expensive. You should make sure that the spices you buy are pure and safe, especially in case you buy packaged spice blends and powdered spices for cooking.

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