By Monique Richard MS, RDN, LDN
As the summer festivities wind down but the warmer weather remains, hopefully time for cooking and family meals abound. Sure, cook-outs and grilling are well known summer staples, but having some fun in the kitchen with cold salads, cold soups (think gazpacho), fruit and frozen treats, salad dressings, marinades, mocktails and quick appetizers can bring a whole new dimension to nutrition and palate-pleasers. What better way to experiment with some new flavors and additions than with all that herbs and spices can offer?
Spices have been used for thousands of years all around the world for many reasons. We are just now discovering the many benefits they can have on our health when incorporated into a balanced diet, such as:
• Spices add flavor to dishes without any additional calories or guilt.
• Spices can be used to replace the need for salt, sugar or additives in some dishes.
• Spices have potent anti-oxidant properties and could help slow the aging process.
• Spices have disease-fighting properties, may help regulate blood glucose, repel colds and boost the body’s natural defenses and function.
Let’s take a look at just a handful of beneficial and fabulous herbs and spices. Feel free to add to your own recipes and meals today.
Oregano is an aromatic herb from the mint family that is easy to grow and grows fairly quickly. It contains anti-bacterial and antiviral compounds that can help destroy organisms that contribute to skin infections. It also fights parasites helping to keep the digestive system and immune system healthy and strong. Oregano may increase joint and muscle flexibility and improve respiratory health as well.
Known for its flavor and properties in Mediterranean cuisine, it can be added to salad dressings, sautéed vegetables, or even used as a garnish (decoration). Using fresh oregano may be more potent in things like pasta sauces and marinades but dried can be used as well.
Not only are garlic cloves useful for getting rid of those pesky vampires, garlic can add flavor and pizazz to a number of dishes, sauces, and culinary creations. It has been used for centuries for its therapeutic benefits. Garlic contains several sulfur compounds, as well as vitamin C, vitamin B6, selenium, and manganese. One of the most potent compounds in garlic is allicin, which has been shown to lower blood pressure, prevent blood clotting in arteries, regulate insulin and triglycerides as well as possibly prevent weight gain. Garlic may also prevent atherosclerosis, heart disease, and potentially cancer. Many studies have been done on garlic’s contribution to ward off Alzheimer’s disease as well. Use garlic chopped, crushed, roasted or toasted in a little olive oil and make an ordinary meal beneficial and delicious.
Cayenne Pepper is a hot spice that is used often in Mexican and Indian cooking. A substance called capsaicin found in the seeds of the pepper is responsible for the heat and also acts to prevent inflammation. It also increases thermogenesis (heat production) and oxygen consumption, which—long story short—can contribute to weight loss since it slightly increases our metabolism. Other medical benefits are: pain relief, heart health, prevention of prostate cancer, and stopping ulcers. Other peppers include habanero or Scotch bonnet peppers, which are among the hottest. For more mild flavor and spice try jalapenos, Spanish pimentos, or cherry peppers. Use them in stir-fries, salads, casseroles, or sauces.
Cinnamon is known for its musky, sweet flavor. It can be used ground or whole in beverages, curries, rice dishes, breads, and desserts. The essential oils found in cinnamon help prevent clotting and fight microbes (bacteria), may lower cholesterol, and keep arteries clear. Recent studies have shown that it slows the rate at which the stomach empties after eating a meal, which reduces the rise in blood sugar. This could possibly be a beneficial spice to add to diets of people who have diabetes.
Add cinnamon to your coffee, sprinkle it on oatmeal, or stir it into peanut butter for dipping celery sticks, apples, carrots, and whole-wheat crackers in. Sprinkle some on sweet potatoes, steamed carrots, or unsweetened applesauce. Grate or grind fresh cinnamon sticks or buy ground cinnamon in the grocery store to add some warmth and pizazz to your snacks and recipes. Vietnamese or Saigon cinnamon is especially potent (intense flavor) and a treat if you want to splurge to make your pumpkin pie or cider and mulling spices mix more special.
Ginger is a strong, pungent spice, widely used in Asian stir fries, as well as fruit and vegetable dishes. The soft drink Ginger Ale used to contain actual ginger for its benefits including calming nausea and an upset stomach or even preventing motion sickness. Recently, ginger has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. It is also beneficial for relieving cold and flu symptoms and is thought to have immune boosting action. Substances found in ginger, as well as those in the spice turmeric, have been shown to inhibit the deposit of a plaque causing protein that may lead to Alzheimer’s and, in some cases, actually may reverse the process.
Ginger can be used in pickles, chutneys, and curry pastes and many curry powders when dried. Young ginger that is tender can be sliced and eaten on or as a salad itself. Dried ginger is mainly used in cakes and biscuits, especially ginger snaps and gingerbread. Ginger is also used in puddings, jams, preserves and in some drinks like ginger beer, ginger wine, and tea. Preserved ginger is eaten in confectionary treats, chopped up for cakes and puddings, or used as an ice cream ingredient.
Variety is the spice of life and the variety of spices available to add to your diet are numerous. Because some of these spices, or others you may add or discover, may have interactions with medications or other reactions, be sure to check with your physician or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) for further direction if you are not familiar with it or do not already use it. However, most times when incorporated into a healthy diet, spices can have a positive and beneficial impact. There are many websites, cookbooks, and resources to help direct you in preparing dishes with specific spices; the options are endless. You can also save costs by growing spices yourself, buying dried varieties, or buying them in bulk at a health or specialty food store. Consider trying just one or two new recipes or ideas and adding one of these spices to discover a different flavor, health benefits, and a new twist on a dish in your diet. Enjoy!
Light Italian Vinaigrette
• 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
• 1 small clove garlic, minced
• 1 Tbsp red wine vinegar (may substitute cider vinegar)
• ¼ tsp dried basil
• ¼ tsp dried oregano
• 1 Tbsp lemon juice
• ¼ cup water
• 2 tsp Dijon mustard
• 1 medium tomato, halved (optional)
• salt and pepper to taste
Squeeze the tomato into the bowl; throw away the skins. Whisk in the water, vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, olive oil, garlic, oregano, basil, salt, and pepper to taste.
Nutrition Facts per 2 Tbsp:
Calories 40, Fat 4 gm, Saturated Fat 0 gm, Sodium 180 mg, Carbs 1 gm, Sugars 1 gm
recipe adapted from the Food Network