One of the hardest things about experimental cooking is seasoning. I always find it challenging to play with my spice cabinet and fresh herbs, never knowing if the combination I choose will be delicious or a failed experiment. Because of these worries, a lot of my clients choose to stay away from spices except for the basics: salt, pepper, garlic powder. By leaving out more interesting herbs and spices, you are missing out on more than you think…
Why have you done a good thing?
You always hear us dietitians preaching to eat your fruits and vegetables for a diet rich in antioxidants. In addition to the wonderful nutrients fresh fruits and vegetables provide, herbs and spices are packed full of antioxidants as well, protecting your body from free radicals and therefore potential chronic diseases such as cancer or heart disease. Herbs and spices have even been shown to reduce carcinogens, or HCAs, formed from grilling meats. Prevention of HCAs is crucial as studies have shown that high consumption of well-done, fried, or barbequed meats significantly increases risk for colon, pancreatic or prostate cancers. Most importantly, when using fresh herbs and spices, you are likely replacing added salt and sugar, which in large amounts is not good for you. Best rule of thumb: when adding flavor spice it up, don’t salt it!
Here are the top 5 antioxidant rich spices to include in your diet:
Oregano. Oregano holds major player antioxidants called thymol, rosmarinic acid, and vitamin E. Research shows that the antioxidants in oregano work best when paired with thyme, sage, rosemary, mint and sweet basil.
How to use it: Mix oregano into your next spaghetti sauce, on top of homemade pizza, mixed into omelettes or salad dressings, in your low-fat grilled cheese, as a seasoning on your chicken or steaks, or infuse oregano into olive oil for cooking or dipping bread.
Ginger. Gingerol, a powerful antioxidant in ginger, helps to ward off many types of cancers. Ginger contains anti-inflammatory properties reducing symptoms of arthritis and IBS or irritable bowel syndrome. Ginger also has been shown help with nausea and other stomach ailements.
How to use it: Try making fresh ginger tea (hot or cold) by steeping a 1” piece of peeled ginger in 1 cup of tea. Experiment by making homemade unsweetened iced teas. Other ways to use ginger include in Asian stir-fries or noodle dishes, marinades or salad dressings. Try also adding ginger into your oatmeal, low-fat homemade muffins or breads, on top of sweet potatoes, mixed into a morning protein-smoothie, or grated on your morning toast.
Storage tip: A little ginger goes a long way so it’s hard to keep it fresh! I peel my ginger completely and store in a plastic bag in the freezer. That way, it’s fresh when I need it, and it’s much easier to grate!
Cinnamon. Containing a antioxidant called cinnamaldehyde, yes really that’s what it is called, cinnamon packs a powerful punch. Cinnamon has also been shown to help improve blood sugar control in some studies.
How to use it: More versatile than you might think. Cinnamon is of course great in hot cereal like oatmeal, plain yogurt, on top of whole-wheat toast with peanut or almond butter, or mixed into coffee instead of sugar. It also enhances the flavor of chocolate and is great wherever you eat chocolate such as chocolate dipped fruit or low-fat chocolate cupcakes. Cinnamon also goes great baked apples, pears or low-fat baked goods. Cinnamon is also delicious in savory cooking including many Moraccan dishes with lamb or chicken or grain dishes such as quinoa.
Clove. Rich in polyphenol compounds, clove is one of the most antioxidant rich spices. Clove also happens to be a great source of manganese and omega-3 fats.
How to use it: Due to its strong flavor, clove is best used in small amounts and can be included wherever you use cinnamon or ginger. Try using clove in your oatmeal, low-fat muffins, cookie recipes, baked apples or pears, or whole grain pancakes.
Tumeric. Containing a powerful antioxidant called curcumin, tumeric has been linked with reducing the risk for cancers, heart disease, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease. Tumeric has also been shown to reduce inflammation, helping arthritis and many IBS sufferers.
How to use it: Try adding tumeric to curry dishes or on top of roasting vegetables, grain or lentil/bean dishes or stews.
Don’t limit yourself to just these herbs and spices! Stay tuned for more Spice It Up blog entries including a near-future edition on me, planting my summer herb garden…
--Amy Santo, MS RD CDN