Spices have served several purposes throughout history. In addition to their use in flavoring food, spices have been used in cosmetics, to embalm the dead and to mask the taste of food past its prime prior to the availability of refrigeration. Ancient Egyptian papyri from 1555 BC record the use of coriander, fennel, juniper, cumin, garlic and thyme. It is reported that the Sumerians were using thyme for its health properties as early as 5000 BC, and the farmers of Mesopotamia were growing garlic as early as 3000 BC. In the 1700s and 1800s, pirates valued spices just as much as the other booty they ruthlessly plundered from trading ships on the high seas.
Today, the health benefits of spices are not going unnoticed by manufacturers and suppliers. According to a report published by Research and Markets, today’s U.S. spice and extract market is estimated at $8.5 billion, with significant growth projected in the U.S. and abroad. Many see this as an opportunity to enter or further capitalize on the booming nutraceutical market. As an example, the McCormick Science Institute was formed as a research-driven organization with a mission to support scientific research and disseminate information on the health benefits of culinary spices and herbs to both consumers and healthcare professionals.
From the end-user perspective, most consumers do not differentiate between spices and herbs. Though there are many similarities between the two, there are some important differences too. Probably the most significant is where they come from on a plant. Herbs usually come from the leafy part of a plant, while spices are most often obtained from seeds, fruits, roots, bark or some other vegetative substance. Interestingly, some plants yield both an herb and a spice. For instance, cilantro is the leafy herb of the same plant that gives us the coriander seed, a popular spice.
Though herbs have been used more frequently than spices in the medical field, many spices do more than impart flavor. Spices are increasingly taking on more value as science and technology reveals their medicinal qualities, many of which are already well known and appreciated in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurvedic food practices and other disciplines.
Fortunately, spices don’t add much weight to the dinner plate aside from evocative and exotic flavors. However, in terms of therapeutic quality, mounting evidence shows that many pack a powerful punch.
Spices Primarily Function as Antioxidants
The healthful effects of antioxidants in reducing inflammation are recognized by experts and the public. By way of a quick review, here is a summary of what an antioxidant is, chemically speaking, and how it helps reduce inflammation.
Antioxidants help neutralize or eliminate free radicals, which are unstable molecules that arise normally during metabolism, as well as from environmental influences such as pollution, radiation, cigarette smoke, herbicides and even physical exercise. To be clear, not all free radicals are bad. For example, the body’s immune cells purposefully create them to destroy viruses and bacteria.
Harmful effects arise because free radicals lack an electron. They “steal” an electron from a neighboring atom, causing it in turn to become unstable. The resulting chain reaction wreaks havoc in cells and tissues.
Antioxidants neutralize free radicals by donating an electron without becoming unstable themselves.
Normally the body adequately defends itself against these free radicals, except when its supply of antioxidants is inadequate, or when free radical production is excessive. The negative effects of free radicals result in cell damage, dysfunction and death, impaired immunity, and contribute to chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. The damage caused by free radicals also figures heavily in theories explaining the physical effects of aging.
The oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) assay is a well-known method for assessing antioxidant capacity. However, measuring the antioxidant capacity of compounds is challenging. For example, there are at least three other methods besides the ORAC assay for assessing antioxidant capacity—and unfortunately results derived from using these do not always agree with one another.
Spices and herbs grown in different geographies have differing antioxidant capacities. There can even be seasonal variations within the same plant. Furthermore, different parts of the plant and whether the herb or spice is dried or fresh affects its antioxidant capacity. These confounders make establishing a standard value for the antioxidant capacity of a given herb or spice difficult.
Nonetheless, it is possible to provide examples of herbs and spices that studies have identified as being particularly high in antioxidant capacity.
Spices have been found to reduce inflammation via mechanisms in addition to their function as antioxidants. Some spices contain bioactive compounds that regulate the inflammatory and immune response. Reducing inflammation is associated with cancers of the breast, colon, lung, pancreas and the head and neck. Spices, herbs and their bioactive compounds can also affect metabolic pathways that regulate cell division, cell proliferation and detoxification—actions important to cancer prevention.
Spices also have antimicrobial and antifungal qualities. These qualities may potentially reduce cancer risk and help prevent food borne illnesses. More research is needed to support these theories; however, it is noteworthy that countries with warmer climates regularly feature the use of multiple spices in their cuisine that may act in concert or singly as antibacterial agents. Such condiments include chili peppers, garlic, onion, anise, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, ginger, lemongrass and turmeric.
Each day scientists are uncovering more health effects and elucidating the mechanisms of action of several spices from around the world. Previously exotic spices are becoming commonplace as well-read consumers expect them in the marketplace. This opportunity should not go unnoticed by the savvy business professional.
Business Insights: Spices That Belong in the Medicine Chest
Today’s manufacturers and suppliers are taking an interest in spices because of their health benefits.
By Gregory Stephens, RD &nSheila Campbell