Are spices a hindrance or a help?


Emma Thornton
Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, ANutr)
@EmmaThornton
Ask Emma


13 December 2018

What are spices? 

Spices are frequently used in different cuisines from all around the world from Mexican to Indian to Chinese. In the past they were perceived a luxury good only available to a select few but nowadays you don’t have to travel the Silk Road as you can nip round to your local supermarket and find an impressive selection. Despite their wide availability though, not a lot of people really seem to understand what a spice is and how it differs from a herb.

Well, similar to most herbs, spices are also derived from dried plants but, unlike herbs, they don’t use the leafy part of the plant. Instead, spices tend to come from the bark, flowered buds or seeds of plants or trees. Cinnamon, one of the more popular spices, for example, comes from the inner bark of certain evergreen trees whilst fiery chilli is prepared using the eponymous chilli pepper.

Although these days spices are mainly used to add flavour to specific dishes, in certain parts of the world they have been involved in traditional medicines for centuries and most spices have a wide range of health benefits associated with them, as I shall discuss next!

What are the best spices for health benefits?

When it comes to health benefits, spices are slowly starting to gain more recognition with last year seeing turmeric burst on to the scene. People are starting to become more curious about spices, which is definitely a positive thing. That’s why below I’ve compiled a list of a few of the more well-known spices and how they may be able to improve or support your health. 

1 – Cinnamon

Best known for: Balancing blood sugar levels

Cinnamon is an incredibly popular spice often used to add flavour to sweeter dishes such as sweet breads, pastries and cakes. The spice contains a plethora of antioxidants which can help to reduce oxidative damage to cells but in recent years, cinnamon had been primarily associated with helping to balance blood sugar levels and several small studies have seen promising results. 

One study, for example, found that cinnamon was able to mimic the effect of insulin, helping to store blood sugar in cells and even increasing insulin sensitivity.1 Of course, these trials are limited by their size and we certainly wouldn’t recommend using cinnamon to combat a major disorder such as diabetes. However, if you’re looking to lower your blood sugar levels, it might be a nice idea to replace some of the sugar in your diet with this sweet spice. 

My favourite cinnamon recipe

Cinnamon Sugar Chickpea Cookies

2 – Ginger 

Best known for: Easing nausea

When it comes to queasiness and nausea, ginger is the go-to spice which possibly explains why ginger tea has been a common remedy for morning sickness for centuries. In fact, a review of 12 studies which included a total of 1278 pregnant women found that ginger was capable of significantly reducing nausea. 

How ginger manages to accomplish this isn’t quite known but it’s believed that the compound gingerol may play a role. Gingerol is known to have potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties which can help to ease a range of symptoms. You can easily incorporate ginger into your cooking but, as I’ve mentioned, ginger tea is a popular way of getting more ginger into your diet which is why I’m going to mention our friends over at Jan de Vries. They stock a range of ginger teas but my favourite would have to be Yogi Tea’s Himalaya Ginger Harmony which not only contains ginger but also sweet cinnamon and fragrant fennel.

My favourite ginger recipe

Carrot & Ginger Soup

3 – Turmeric

Best known for: Anti-inflammatory properties

Turmeric has exploded in popularity in recent years, rising to become a trendy food with turmeric lattes widely being available at most coffee chains now. In her blog, ‘6 fantastic uses for turmeric’ Yvonne, our guest author from Jan de Vries, elaborates about a few of the many benefits associated with this vibrant spice but the main one I want to focus on is its impact on inflammation. 

Inflammation is a huge problem in our society these days and our eating habits certainly don’t help the issue as most of us eat red meat, sugar, caffeine and other triggers on a daily basis.  Chronic inflammation can be associated with serious problems like IBS and arthritis but even low grade inflammation can cause mood problems and digestive upsets. Turmeric helps as it can reduce inflammation, with studies showing that just an 8 week course of turmeric was able to reduce IBS symptoms by up to 60%!3 

However, it’s important to remember that too much of anything can be bad so here at A.Vogel we usually recommend just trying to incorporate more turmeric into your meals. Little and often is the best way but, if you are interested in a turmeric supplement, the highest dose we would recommend would be 1300mg a day, which you can find in BetterYou’s Oral Turmeric Spray

My favourite turmeric recipe

Coconut, Spinach & Red Lentil Dhal

4 – Cayenne pepper

Best known for: Increasing satiation

Cayenne pepper is usually used to add a bit of heat to certain dishes so it’s definitely one of the spicier entrants on this list. When it comes to the health benefits of cayenne, interestingly some studies have indicated that cayenne may help to reduce your appetite and increase feelings of satiation. This is primarily due to the compound capsaicin which is found in cayenne peppers and is believed to reduce the production of the hunger hormone ghrelin.

One study found that participants who were taking capsaicin supplements ate 10% less than those who were not and reported feeling fuller after meals.4  Impressive but I wouldn’t go reaching for a capsaicin supplement just yet as, similar to turmeric, many conventional supplements contain far too much capsaicin. Instead, try to include more cayenne pepper in your diet but be aware; as I will discuss latter, this spice doesn’t agree with everyone!

My favourite cayenne recipe

Spiced Chickpea and Tahini Sweet Potato JSHealth Bowl

5 – Cumin

Best known for: Supporting digestion

Cumin is extremely popular and often used to flavour soups and curries however, research has found that cumin may help to ease symptoms of indigestion. In fact, cumin contains quite a few active compounds, including thymol which can help to stimulate your digestive enzymes and production of bile.5 These crucial enzymes help to contribute to the breakdown of certain foods so they are extremely important, especially if you want to avoid symptoms such as bloating or bouts of constipation.  

My favourite cumin recipes

Easy Chickpea and Spinach Curry

Are spices bad for your health?

As you can see, spices can be very beneficial for supporting your health and wellbeing but, for some of us, they can also be the instigators of problems such as hot sweats, acid reflux and even diarrhoea. How can something so apparently good for you wreak this kind of havoc though? Let’s take a look! 

Spices can increase your temperature – If you’re partial to a curry or a burrito then you may have noticed that afterwards you always feel a little bit hot and flustered. Well, the downside of hot spices such as cayenne pepper which contain capsaicin is that they can raise your temperature. This is why our Menopause Expert Eileen often recommends that women prone to hot flushes avoid spicy foods as it may worsen their sweats! It’s also worth mentioning that sufferers of skin conditions such as rosacea may wish to give these types of foods a miss as this increase in temperature may trigger a flare-up!

Spices may worsen acid reflux or heartburn – There’s not enough evidence to say that spices can cause acid reflux or heartburn directly, however, if you’re prone to these issue then certain spices may contribute to the problem. Once again, capsaicin spices are the main culprits although other spices like ginger and cinnamon can sometimes add to the problem too!

Spices can contribute to IBS symptoms – When it comes to IBS, the triggers can vary extensively from sufferer to sufferer but hot, capsaicin spices are generally not recommended. This is because capsaicin can sometimes irritate your gut and move too quickly through your digestive system, encouraging diarrhoea and, according to some studies, worsening IBS related abdominal cramps!7 

Our advice for all things spice!

  • Little and often – remember, it is possible to have too much of a good thing!
  • Supplement sensibly – Don’t opt for supplements that boast extremely high doses; again this could create problems if you get too much of a particular spice!
  • Stay away if you suffer from a digestive complaint – Certain spices could potentially upset your symptoms so stay away from the hotter spices if you’re prone to reflux, diarrhoea or IBS!
  • Avoid spicy foods if you suffer from hot flushes - Spices can sometimes raise your body temperature which may make you more susceptible to sweats!
  • Incorporate into homemade meals – There’s no point saying you got your daily dose of turmeric if it came from a takeaway meal. Home cooked is always best!
  • Go organic – Just as with many other food products, spices that are organic may contain unwanted preservatives and chemicals!

1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11506060

2https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3995184/

3https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/acm.2004.10.1015

4https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15611784

5https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/health-benefits-cumin

6https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308814608002483

7https://thesensitivegut.com/2016/07/12/do-spices-make-ibs-worse/

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