Spices come from the part of plants that are especially rich in essential oils. The most commonly recognized spices are formed from the barks, berries, seeds, roots, and stems of plants. This gives them their pungent flavor and aroma. There are ~20,000 edible plant species with both culinary and medicinal properties. Below we'll focus on some of the most commonly discussed.
Turmeric: Curcumin is the phytochemical that gives turmeric its bright yellow color. Lipids and bile salts encourage bioavailability and absorption.
Black Pepper: Piperine is the aromatic compound that gives pepper its flavor and health benefits.
Cayenne and Chili: Capsaicinoids are the main compound in these peppers.
Cinnamon: Cinnamaldehyde is the main active ingredient in Cinnamon.
Ginger: Gingerol is the primary compound in fresh ginger (spice sensation akin to piperine).
Herbs are leaves that come from herbaceous or woody-stemmed plants. They can be fresh or dried.
Black & Green Tea: Green, Black, and Oolong are all from the Camellia sinensis plant. Black tea is fully fermented and oxidized. Green tea is not fermented or oxidized. Catechins (Green Tea - EGC, EC / Black Tea - Theaflavins) are active substances alongside tannins (ellagic acids) and caffeine.
Sage: The salvia species with active ingredients of rosmarinic acid and safficinolide. Common Sage is considered the most potent with the highest amount of essential oil.
Peppermint: Of the genus, Mentha (alongside spearmint), contains menthol that activates cold sensors in mucosal and skin tissues. It also contains active ingredients rosmarinic acid and menthone.
Rosemary (rosmarinic acid): Encourages digestion and reduces inflammation.
The benefits touted are mainly in response to the anti-inflammatory phytochemicals contained within the spices. The anti-inflammatory nature is in their ability to down-regulate inflammatory proteins such as C-reactive protein (CRP), Nuclear Factor-kappa Beta (NFkB), and histamine. Reducing the inflammation response to a typical level prevents the body from going into overdrive and harming itself.
Turmeric: Anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. The claims include lowering cholesterol, anti-cancer, anti-artheroid, and anti-obesity properties.
Black Pepper (Piperine): Antimicrobial, antioxidant, circulatory stimulant, supports digestion, and increases the bioavailability of nutrients.
Cayenne (capsaicin) and Chili: Antimicrobial, antioxidant, metabolic stimulant, appetite suppressant, and inhibits adipogenesis.
Cinnamon: Antimicrobial, antioxidant, supports digestion, lowers blood pressure, improves glucose and lipid levels.
Ginger: Anti-inflammatory, anti-nausea, anti-microbial, energy stimulant, supports digestion, weight loss, and anti-viral. Help with digestion ( Bloating, constipation, gas, heartburn, diarrhea), high in antioxidants, and modulating immune response.
Green and Black Tea: Possibly effective anti-oxidants, anti-inflammation, anti-cancer, reduced heart disease risk, and blood glucose-lowering properties.
Sage: Rosmarinic acid encourages digestion, increases glucose sensitivity, and reduces inflammation. Safficinolide has antiviral, antioxidant, and LDL lowering properties. Brain disorders such as depression, and memory loss (Alzheimers) may be aided by intake of Common Sage.
Peppermint: Decongestant, supports digestion, reduces nausea, increases blood flow. Also repels rodents and pest insects (i.e. mosquitos).
Rosemary (rosmarinic acid): Encourages digestion, reduces inflammation, antioxidant and antiviral.
What the science says:
Turmeric: Curcumin is one of the most widely studied compounds with substantial evidence regarding its anti-inflammatory properties. In some studies, the anti-cancer research has shown promise concerning curcumin; however, there is conflicting evidence regarding some cancers. Research on its inhibition of fat storage and, therefore, obesity is also promising.
Turmeric's quality, quantity, and the other foods combined with it also matter. For example, curcumins absorption within the body increases when consumed with piperine (black pepper) and foods containing healthy fats.
Black Pepper: It reduces the effect of inflammatory proteins, but unlike red peppers, it does not enhance anti-inflammatory proteins (Jungbauer). Black pepper compounds are enhanced by the cooking process (except for frying) as it makes the peperine more accessible to the body. Less research has been performed than on capsaicinoids, but promising results so far.
Cayenne & Chili: Capsaicinoids are considered one of the most powerful anti-inflammatory compounds as they reduce the effects of inflammatory proteins and enhance anti-inflammatory cytokines. This is a double effect not seen in a lot of foods. Research has also shown its ability to reduce obesity via thermoregulating properties and improve insulin sensitivity.
Cinnamon: The bioactive compounds in cinnamon have successfully suppressed anti-inflammatory proteins, and cinnamon extracts are used to treat type II diabetes. However, there is a significant lack of research showing these positive claims regarding cinnamon. There may be a link, but not enough studies have been conducted.
Ginger: There are no human trials linked to ginger’s antimicrobial abilities, only trials in mice or in-vitro human cells.
Most research regarding herbs pertains to individual compounds within them rather than the herb as a whole. The complexity of studying how the phytochemicals interact and their medicinal properties is lacking. The science generally rests upon non-human studies, which are a brilliant start, but we need more conclusive evidence to understand our health better and implement solutions.
Green and Black Tea: Quite a bit of research exists on the benefits of tea's active ingredients. The difficulty lies in the standardization of growth environment, process, and storage conditions as to the beneficial compounds' effectiveness and stability.
Sage (rosmarinic acid): Bioavailability within the body is low, and research is challenging due to the combined effects of different active compounds. Rosmarinic acid research shows that it does suppress anti-inflammatory cytokines.
Peppermint: Most information is from long-term practices, but scientific evidence is lacking. It is shown to be a cooling agent. However, concentrated oil may be an irritant for some, especially in high doses, for topical (skin rashes) and internal (heartburn) applications.
Rosemary (rosmarinic acid): Encourages digestion and reduces inflammation. Gut flora digest and produce beneficial metabolites from the rosmarinic acid and other compounds contained within rosemary.
Observational reports over millennia have allowed us to conclude the advantages of plants, from their roots to leaves. A lack of scientific research does not negate the potential benefits; it just shows that it is difficult to isolate and control the many compounding factors that these spices and herbs provide.
The beneficial antioxidants and phytochemicals within spices/herbs are in small quantities. It, therefore, requires consistent consumption in your meals, snacks, and drinks to accumulate potential uses. Recent studies have also shown that extreme doses are not helpful and may even be detrimental. Avoiding concentrated, isolated supplements and instead consuming their whole food counterparts is recommended.
Will this benefit you?
Yes, consuming spices and herbs consistently in small quantities (~1/8th tsp) is beneficial. They are functional foods with positive effects regarding metabolic syndromes, anti-inflammatory properties, and other health benefits. Add them in as much variety as possible to your meals, snacks, and drinks.
Still curious to try it? If you do, here’s what to keep an eye on:
Aim for fresh, whole sources of herbs and spices.
Look for potent color, aroma, taste, and turgid specimens.
Source from trusted sellers regarding growing environment and species.
Store in airtight containers in cool, dark areas.
References and additional reading:
de la Forêt, Rosalee. Alchemy of Herbs. Hay House. Book. 2017
Alois Jungbauer, Svjetlana Medjakovic, Anti-inflammatory properties of culinary herbs and spices that ameliorate the effects of metabolic syndrome, Maturitas, Volume 71, Issue 3, 2012, Pages 227-239, ISSN 0378-5122, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.maturitas.2011.12.009.
Kasibhatta, Ravisekhar, and M. U. R. Naidu. “Influence of Piperine on the Pharmacokinetics of Nevirapine under Fasting Conditions: A Randomised, Crossover, Placebo-Controlled Study.” Drugs in R&D 8, no. 6 (2007): 383–91.
Shoba, G., et al. “Influence of Piperine on the Pharmacokinetics of Curcumin in Animals and Human Volunteers.” Planta Medica 64, no. 4 (May 1998): 353–56. doi:10.1055/s-2006-957450.
Umesh, Patil, Amrit Singh, and Anup Chakraborty. “Role of Piperine as a Bioavailability Enhancer.” International Journal of Recent Advances in Pharm. Research 1, no. 4 (October 2011): 16–23.
J.H. Kang, T. Goto, I.S. Han, T. Kawada, Y.M. Kim, R. Yu
Dietary capsaicin reduces obesity-induced insulin resistance and hepatic steatosis in obese mice fed a high-fat diet. Obesity (Silver Spring), 18 (2010), pp. 780-787
Yeoh, K. G., et al. “Chili Protects against Aspirin-Induced Gastroduodenal Mucosal Injury in Humans.” Digestive Diseases and Sciences 40, no. 3 (1995): 580–83. doi:10.1007/BF02064374.
Kang, J. Y., et al. “Chili—Protective Factor against Peptic Ulcer?” Digestive Diseases and Sciences 40, no. 3 (1995): 576–79. doi:10.1007/BF02064373.
Snitker, Soren, et al. “Effects of Novel Capsinoid Treatment on Fatness and Energy Metabolism in Humans: Possible Pharmacogenetic Implications.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 89, no. 1 (2009): 45–50. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2008.26561.
Ludy, Mary-Jon, and Richard D. Mattes. “The Effects of Hedonically Acceptable Red Pepper Doses on Thermogenesis and Appetite.” Physiology & Behavior 102, no. 3–4 (2011): 251–58. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2010.11.018.
Ahuja, K. D. K., et al. “The Effect of 4-Week Chilli Supplementation on Metabolic and Arterial Function in Humans.” European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 61, no. 3 (2007): 326–33.
Ahuja, Kiran D. K., and Madeleine J. Ball. “Effects of Daily Ingestion of Chili on Serum Lipoprotein Oxidation in Adult Men and Women.” British Journal of Nutrition 96, no. 02 (2006): 239–42. doi:10.1079/BJN20061788.
Akilen, R., et al. “Glycated Haemoglobin and Blood Pressure-Lowering Effect of Cinnamon in Multi-Ethnic Type 2 Diabetic Patients in the UK: A Randomized, Placebo-Controlled, Double-Blind Clinical Trial.” Diabetic Medicine 27, no. 10 (October 1, 2010): 1159–67. doi:10.1111/j.1464-5491.2010.03079.x.
Khan, Alam, et al. “Cinnamon Improves Glucose and Lipids of People with Type 2 Diabetes.” Diabetes Care 26, no. 12 (2003): 3215–18. doi:10.2337/diacare.26.12.3215.
Solomon, Thomas P. J., and Andrew K. Blannin. “Changes in Glucose Tolerance and Insulin Sensitivity Following 2 Weeks of Daily Cinnamon Ingestion in Healthy Humans.” European Journal of Applied Physiology 105, no. 6 (2009): 969–76. doi:10.1007/s00421-009-0986-9.
Shan B, Cai YZ, Sun M, Corke H. Antioxidant capacity of 26 spice extracts and characterization of their phenolic constituents. J Agric Food Chem. 2005 Oct 5;53(20):7749-59. doi: 10.1021/jf051513y. PMID: 16190627.
Wu, Keng-Liang, et al. “Effects of Ginger on Gastric Emptying and Motility in Healthy Humans” European Journal of Gastroenterology & Hepatology 20, no. 5 (May 2008): 436–40. doi:10.1097/MEG.0b013e3282f4b224.
Hu, Ming-Luen, et al. “Effect of Ginger on Gastric Motility and Symptoms of Functional Dyspepsia.” World Journal of Gastroenterology 17, no. 1 (2011): 105–10. doi:10.3748/wjg.v17.i1.105.