Spice is nice — and healthy

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

March 2009

The ancient Romans made plentiful use of spices, not surprising in a warm climate where keeping food fresh and tasty was a challenge. Disguising the off-kilter flavor of food did contribute to the demand for spices but more than likely it was because spices add so much to otherwise uninspiring foods. That was especially true in wintry Europe, whose growing populations in medieval times had to make it between harvests with boringly bland dried, smoked and salted foods.

The healing power of some spices such as clove and cinnamon has been part of medical folklore for a couple of thousand years. Most spices are rather pungent and ancient healers probably took advantage of that for its psychological effect.

Spices tend to be rich in antioxidants, substances that neutralize harmful chemicals that assault us daily. These free radicals come from sunlight, radiation, environmental toxins and even from our own digestive processes. Without the protection of antioxidants, damage to our DNA would accelerate aging and increase our risk of cancer. Antioxidants help to protect us from heart attacks by interacting with some forms of cholesterol that would otherwise accumulate in the walls of blood vessels.

Some spices inhibit the growth of bacteria even as they enhance the aroma and flavor of food. For instance, cinnamon inactivates a bacterium that is harmful to newborn infants, another that causes stomach ulcers and one that causes food poisoning. These are only laboratory studies however, and we don't know if any of these substances can help to control human disease. It's unlikely that research funds will be forthcoming soon for a common food product that has been used for a couple of thousand years. That may change as pharmaceutical companies find it harder to develop antibiotics for increasingly resistant germs.

In addition to its antioxidant and antibacterial activity cinnamon helps to lower blood sugar by enhancing the activity of insulin. Persons with high cholesterol levels may also benefit from cinnamon.

As cancer gains on heart disease as the leading cause of death, research on the anticancer activity of spices is increasing. Persons whose diet is rich in turmeric have lower rates of cancer of the breast, prostate lung and colon.

Are you on a low-sodium diet? Try getting creative with your spice rack. There are dozens of spices that you can add to any food in place of table salt.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.