For your daily dose of precious antioxidants, look no further than your kitchen spice cabinet or herb garden. Herbs and spices are known to have traditional medicinal purposes, but several are among the top 50 dietary sources of antioxidants in the human diet and are powerful inhibitors of tissue damage and inflammation caused by high blood sugar levels, according to a recent University of Georgia study.
The main antioxidants in the human diet are derived from edible plants and are called polyphenolic compounds. These antioxidant compounds have beneficial anti-inflammatory capabilities for the prevention and treatment of chronic diseases involving inflammation, helping reduce the risk of some cancers, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative disease, diabetes and osteoporosis. People with type 2 diabetes, which is often associated with obesity, especially can benefit from antioxidants found in culinary herbs and spices because they provide a high concentration of the polyphenolic compounds but have few calories.
For example, cinnamon and cinnamon extracts can lower blood glucose after meals and evidence suggests it also might delay the emptying of the stomach, which helps diminish the spikes in blood sugar after a meal. It may also improve insulin sensitivity and enhance antioxidant defenses. Additionally, cinnamon has been shown to reduce serum glucose, triglycerides, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL, or “bad” cholesterol) and total cholesterol in type 2 diabetics.
One of the study’s most important findings is that herbs and spices, due to their high concentration of polyphenolics, may block the formation of advanced glycation end products, or AGE compounds, during a process caused when blood sugar levels are high. AGE compounds are responsible for tissue damage caused by diabetes. The study tested 24 grocery-store herbs and spices for their ability to inhibit these AGE compounds from forming.
The most potent ingredients included cloves, ground Jamaican allspice and cinnamon. These spices were particularly effective in that they inhibited glycation at the lowest dilution level, meaning that of all the herbs tested, it took the lowest concentration for these herbs to reach the same goal as the others. Blueberries, widely touted for their antioxidant benefits, have a phenol content roughly one-sixth of the level found in cloves and one-third of that found in cinnamon.
Diane Hartle, co-author of the study and an associate professor in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Georgia, says a major catalyst for the study was a desire to investigate the practical health benefit of culinary herbs and spices.
“There’s a huge difference in eating a bland diet and eating a high spice or herb diet,” she says. “It’s a good practice to incorporate herbs—you can take ordinary food and herb it up, make it flavorful, colorful and healthier.”
Hartle explains that most Americans consume only about 250 to 500 mg of phenolic compounds a day, most derived from coffee and tea. For type 2 diabetics to experience cinnamon’s protection against AGE compounds, 1 to 6 grams a day are recommended (approximately 1/5 to 1 1/5 teaspoons).
Hartle and her colleagues also tested table salt, the most widely used seasoning in the West; it had no effect on the formation of AGE compounds. Black pepper was found to rank at a relatively high phenolic content along with ground oregano, pumpkin pie spice, marjoram and garam masala.
“The substances adding the flavor also happen to carry the health benefits; it just happens that way,” Hartle says. “There are major health benefits to be gained by not thinking of herbs and spices as just garnishes, but as medicine on the shelf.”
Writer Lauren Flemming lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.
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