Eat more whole foods. This simple recommendation is at the heart of a building consensus: The healthiest diet is a plant-based diet. In The Plant-Powered Diet (The Experiment, 2012), registered dietitian Sharon Palmer gathers the most up-to-date findings in nutrition to explain both why you should fill more of your plate with whole-plant foods and how to do so, whether you’re a vegan, vegetarian or omnivorous. Learn about the benefits certain herbs and spices for health have to offer in this excerpt taken from chapter 8, “The Bold and the Beautiful: Herbs, Spices and Chocolate.”
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There are a number of herbs and spices currently under investigation for health benefits, and I have included some of the most promising in the following list. It’s important to note that much of the health research on spices and herbs is still in its infancy; so stay tuned as researchers further mine this field in order to elucidate the potential these plants hold to fight disease. Remember, spices—like all plant foods—offer no “silver bullet”; there’s little proof that they cure conditions like cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, even though some Web sites selling herb and spice supplements might suggest otherwise. Simply include these powerful plant foods in your diet to boost your natural defense system against disease:
1. Turmeric, the Spice King. Probably the most celebrated spice in the research world, turmeric is responsible for the characteristic yellow-gold hue in curry powder, popular in Indian cooking and traditional medicine for centuries. The spice, which comes from the rhizome of the turmeric plant, is packed with a polyphenol called curcumin that demonstrates antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities. Studies have found that turmeric may protect against cancer, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and gastrointestinal problems. Of particular interest is turmeric’s potential in Alzheimer’s disease protection. Scientists discovered that rodents fed curcumin experienced delayed accumulation of the protein fragments called beta-amyloids in the brain that is a hallmark in the development of Alzheimer’s. Not all studies have found a brain-protective effect for turmeric, and more research in this area is set to be published in coming years. Regardless, it certainly seems like a good idea to boost the color and flavor of your foods with turmeric.
2. Beyond the Fields of Garlic. Forget about guarding against vampires; there’s some evidence that garlic may help protect you against a real monster: heart disease. Folklore attributes a multitude of far-ranging health benefits to garlic—from wound healing to treating rheumatism—but modern studies show that this pungent bulb may have heart-healthy effects, such as lowering inflammation, oxidative stress, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure, as well as exhibiting anticlotting activity. It turns out that this plant in the onion family contains bioactive substances including allicin, quercetin, and organosulfur compounds that may be behind its benefits. However, a recent National Institute of Health–funded clinical trial found that consumption of garlic did not successfully reduce cholesterol levels.
3. Hot, Hot Pepper. You can’t beat the heat of peppers—red, black, or white—for their strong health effects. Red pepper is the dried fruit pod of the Capsicum family, which encompasses a number of spice forms, such as chili pepper, tabasco pepper, African chilies, paprika, and cayenne pepper. These spices all have one thing in common: They’re a concentrated source of capsaicin, the powerful phytochemical that gives chiles their heat. Studies suggest that capsaicin has cancer-protective, anti-inflammatory, and pain-relieving effects. On the other hand, black and white pepper both come from the small dried berry of the vine Piper nigrum and contain piperine, a bioactive compound linked with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer effects.
4. The Sweet Comfort of Cinnamon. As comforting as grandma’s apple pie, cinnamon—the dried inner bark of evergreen trees in the genus Cinnamomum—is one of our most beloved spices. But cinnamon has much more to offer than its trademark sweet aroma and flavor: It supplies antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial effects. The most intriguing area of cinnamon research shows a potential blood-glucose– and insulin-regulating effect, due to cinnamon’s polyphenols, which may act like insulin in the body. Studies have found modest improvements in lowering blood glucose among patients with type 2 diabetes. Although it’s too soon to know for sure whether it’s a useful tool for diabetes management, it certainly doesn’t hurt to sprinkle this sweet-smelling spice into your foods every day.
5. Over the Moon for Oregano. When you think about this aromatic, woodsy herb, Italian cuisine is probably the first thing that comes to mind. Indeed, many traditional Italian dishes, from lasagna to pasta sauce, owe their herbal qualities in large part to this green plant in the marjoram family. What you might not realize is that oregano, like many other fresh green herbs, boasts generous levels of phytochemicals that show antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer activity. In one study, oregano had the highest antioxidant activity among twenty-seven culinary herbs and twelve medicinal herbs tested, ranking even higher than fruits and vegetables. Oregano also possesses antimicrobial activity against common food pathogens like salmonella and E. coli, so alongside techniques like safe refrigeration and handwashing, eating it may contribute to food safety.
6. Soothing Ginger. Ginger, the knobby root of a plant in the Zingiberaceae family, has an illustrious history as a traditional medicine going back at least 2,500 years. Now we know that this key flavoring in Asian foods contains a mixture of several hundred known compounds, including gingerols, beta-carotene, capsaicin, caffeic acid, curcumin, and salicylate that fuel its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticancer, and antimicrobial effects. Some studies have shown that ginger may be helpful in treating nausea associated with pregnancy with little risk of harm, as well as in treating motion sickness and chemotherapy-related nausea.
7. Cracking the Mysteries of Nutmeg. Inside the apricot-like fruit of the nutmeg tree, which is in the genus Myristica and native to Indonesia, lies a seed which yields the enchanting spice nutmeg. We tend to think of nutmeg as the perfect accompaniment to pumpkin pie and gingerbread, but in fact it is used in many savory dishes in Greece, India, and Japan. Nutmeg displays antibacterial activity toward pathogens such as E. coli, and it’s been linked with antidepressant activity. But nutmeg lovers beware: 1- to 2-ounce doses have been known to cause prolonged delirium.
8. La Vie en Rosemary. Native to the Mediterranean, this hardy green herb has been prized throughout history for its medicinal strengths. Rosemary’s characteristic piney aroma and taste make it a popular herb in Middle Eastern, Italian, French, and Spanish cuisine. Beyond flavor, rosemary has health potential based on antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial activities linked to its polyphenol composition. Animal studies have demonstrated that this fragrant herb has anticancer action and even aromatherapy effects linked to pain relief and mood improvement.
9. Ice, Cool Mint. Mint is so much more than a fresh, aromatic herb featured in toothpaste and breath mints; powerful phenols are hidden in its leaves, and volatile compounds in its essential oil. The phenolic constituents of the leaves include rosmarinic acid and several flavonoids. The main volatile components of the essential oil of peppermint are menthol and menthone. For centuries, folk healers doled out mint to treat maladies such as colic and digestive disorders, and the ancient Romans scattered their homes with mint to freshen them. Now we know that mint has significant antimicrobial action against common food-borne pathogens, as well as antiviral, antioxidant, and antitumor actions. Some animal studies show a relaxation effect on gastrointestinal tissue and pain relief action from mint.
10. Deep Green Basil. This freshly scented herb, made famous for its starring role in pesto, is a member of the mint family. Its historic use in traditional medicine still continues today; several countries, including Morocco, use basil as a medical plant to reduce cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease. Bioactive compounds in basil include flavonoids, which seem to protect body cells against the damaging effects of oxidative stress. Indeed, basil has shown lipid-lowering potential, as well as anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and anticancer activity, in preliminary research.
11. Sage Advice. Legend has it that the silvery green herb we know as sage helps preserve memory; thus sage became a term for “wise man.” This aromatic, woody herb in the genus Salvia is a staple seasoning in European as well as North American savory dishes. Three plant compounds—flavonoids, phenolic acids, and enzymes—come together in unison in the sage plant to create strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects that help prevent damage to body cells. It’s sage advice indeed to enjoy this herb, because folk healers have been proved correct: Human studies show that sage may indeed enhance memory.
12. Crazy for Cloves. Famous for its sweet, nutty aroma, this spice from the dried, nail-shaped flower buds of the evergreen Syzygium aromaticum is more than meets the nose. Cloves contain eugenol, an active compound that has been linked with prevention of certain types of cancer, inflammation, and toxicity from environmental pollutants, as well as antibacterial effects.
13. Nothing Ordinary About Vanilla. One of the most popular flavorings in the world, vanilla originates from Mexico, where the Aztecs enjoyed it in a drink that they believed had magical health properties. Derived from dried, cured beans, or fruit pods, of the Vanilla planifolia plant—a member of the orchid family—vanilla offers its sweet-smelling fragrance and taste to many foods. And now scientists are beginning to discover that vanilla extract contains bioactive compounds that appear to be high in antioxidant activity.
“Herbs and Spices for Health” has been reprinted with permission from The Plant-Powered Diet: The Lifelong Eating Plan for Achieving Optimal Health, Beginning Today by Sharon Palmer, RD, and published by The Experiment, 2012. Buy this book from our store: The Plant-Powered Diet.