The Hidden Health Benefits of Spice

Spices have been revered throughout history for their numerous healing benefits. In fact, many contain more disease-fighting antioxidants than some fruits and vegetables. Even better, spicing is an incredibly easy, inexpensive and effective way to add flavour to our food, reducing the need to add salt, added sugars and unnecessary sources of saturated fat. So, from lowering blood sugar levels and aiding digestion to boosting our metabolism and relieving joint pain, these are the six store-cupboard spices you need to know about:

Turmeric

Turmeric contains curcumin which is a powerful anti-inflammatory and potent antioxidant. Although the curcumin content of turmeric is typically not that high (around 2-4%), turmeric has been used as a medicinal herb for thousands of years and now modern medicine is beginning to confirm the very real benefits of this vibrant yellow spice – curcumin inhibiting the growth of certain breast cancer cells and relieving pain of arthritis, injuries and dental procedures.

Why not try… Adding turmeric to rice or an omelette for a colourful flavour-kick, or heating through with milk and honey for a comforting cup of deliciously earthy turmeric tea.

Why not buy… Turmeric in its natural state from the dried, ground root of Curcuma longa in India, thanks to the chaps at JustIngredients. Their turmeric is not only 100% natural but contains higher than average levels of curcumin – the company even offering exact test results for each batch you have purchased.

Chilli Pepper

The high concentration of capsaicin in chilli peppers is not only responsible for their intense heat sensation, but has been proven to help lower blood sugar levels, improve heart health, boost circulation, protect against strokes and act as a natural pain relief for osteoarthritis. A single chilli pepper also contains a whopping 110 mg of vitamin C (far more than an orange) and high levels of other antioxidants such as vitamin A, and flavonoids like ß-carotene, α-carotene, lutein, zea-xanthin and cryptoxanthin. Chillies are also often touted as a solution to weight loss with capsaicin increasing our metabolism and even sweet red peppers found to significantly increase heat production and oxygen consumption for more than 20 minutes after they are eaten.

Why not try… Spicing up Shepherd’s Pie and Bolognese sauces with a spoonful of crushed or ground dried chillies,  or stirring into mayonnaise or soured cream for a spicy dip or salad dressing.

Why not buy… Described as ‘probably the hottest natural chilli pickle in the UK’, Mr Vikki’s King Naga has got me in a sweat just thinking about it. Made from 80% naga chillies, there’s no getting away from the extreme heat packed inside this small 110ml jar. Click here to read more.

Cayenne Pepper

In 2011 Beyonce hit the headlines for following the extreme maple syrup and cayenne pepper diet, but cayenne pepper is a well-known digestive aid and has long been used in cleansing and detox programmes to help stimulate circulation and improve digestion by increasing stomach acids and enzyme secretion. Like chillies, cayenne is high in capsaicin which not only makes cayenne pepper a great metabolic-booster, but can also be used to relieve pain in joints and normalise blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Cayenne pepper is also commonly used as an anti-cold and flu agent, helping to break up and clear mucus congestion and ease sore throats and coughs.

Why not try… Adding to cheesy bakes such as parmesan twists or cheddar crackers, or sprinkling over sliced and fried polenta to liven up this naturally gluten-free side dish. 

Why not buy… Organic Cayenne Pepper (£2.45/55g, or £3.95 for a 150g bag) from Steenbergs Organic. Delivering a surprising warmth and sweetness against the pungent bite of capsicum, Steenbergs Organic Cayenne Pepper is a pure chilli product with a consistent chilli heat in the range of 38,000 – 50,000 Scoville Heat Units. 

Paprika

Made by grinding dried pods of the pepper plant known as Capsicum annuum, paprika comes from an annual plant native to South America and is available in both sweet and smoked varieties. Although less fiery than chilli and cayenne pepper, paprika is surprisingly high on health benefits and possesses impressive anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. Loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and an exceptionally high level of carotenoids, paprika’s combination of iron and vitamin C means it can help prevent anemia and is also used to heal wounds, promote sleep, improve digestion, maintain healthy eyesight and protect against cardiovascular disease.

Why not try… sprinkling over eggs, swirling into hummus, or pairing with garlic and cayenne for a healthy rub for chicken and fish.

Why not buy… Sweet, smoked, spanish and organic paprika from the UK’s largest online supplier of dried herbs, spices and wholefoods: Just Ingredients. Available from 100g – 25kg, all products from JustIngredients are packed by hand to order, meaning you can stock up your spice cupboard with the same high quality ingredients as those sold to restaurants, chefs and traders in-the-know. Prices are also surprisingly reasonable, with 100g of loose paprika available for just £2.

Cinnamon

Cinnamon has long been used for medicinal purposes and while modern medicine has mixed feelings on the role it can have on improving health, cinnamon is still widely used to help treat muscle spasms, vomiting, diarrhea, infections, the common cold, loss of appetite and even erectile dysfunction (ED). Diabetes UK recommend cinnamon as a possible solution to lowering blood sugar in people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes, it’s anti-inflammatory properties also helping lower the risk of disease.

Why not try… Sprinkling over peeled and cored whole apples and baking in the oven on a low heat for a healthy sweet treat, or stirring 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of cinnamon powder into hot water for sweet and spicy cinnamon tea.

Why not buy… Like every product from JustIngredients, this cinnamon is non-irradiated and GMO free. They’ve also got six different versions of cinnamon to choose from (True Ground, Ground, Sticks/Quills 6 inch, Sticks/Quills 3 inch, Fairtrade Organic Ground and Fairtrade Organic Sticks/Quills), as well as Cinnamon Oil and a specially selected Christmas Mulled Wine Spice Kit. Just in case you needed another excuse to pour that second glass. 

Cumin

Belonging to the same plant family as caraway, parsley and dill, cumin seeds are an excellent source of vitamins, minerals and iron (1 tablespoon supplying 20 percent of the daily value for iron) and just one teaspoon of this spice could help you lose three times as much body fat.

Traditionally cumin has been used as a herbal medicine to relieve stomach aches and aid digestion, which is also supported by some modern research which shows that cumin can stimulate the production of pancreatic enzymes.

Why not try… Swapping plain black pepper with cumin as an alternative all-round seasoning, or mixing it up with other fragrant spices to create a Ras el hanout, Baharat or Dukkah.

Sound complicated? It’s not. Or doesn’t have to be anyway thanks to Seasoned Pioneers’ award-winning spice blends which have even Nigella Lawson, Delia Smith and Rick Stein counted among fans. And if it’s good enough for Delia, it’s good enough for me. Every pouch from Seasoned Pioneers is packed in resealable foil packs to protect the contents from what Delia describes as the “two enemies of flavour”: light and air. There’s also strictly no additives and no preservatives, with every spice blend handmade and dry-roasted to traditional recipes, using traditional production methods.

Steenbergs Organic are another British company at the forefront of Fairtrade spices in the UK and Europe, also proudly the first company in the UK to offer spices carrying the Fairtrade mark. Their own 400-strong range of organic spices and herbs certainly makes it easier to make the move to organic, and the complex Arabic flavours of their Dukkah spice mix is a real lesson in how a few lovingly toasted seeds and spices can make a whole dish come alive.

Another easy (and healthy) way to add flavour to your food is with Steenbergs Organic Perfect Salt (£2.45/90g, or £3.70/180g).

Described as ‘the ultimate cooks cheat’, this blend of natural sea salt, black pepper and mixed herbs (thyme, sage, oregano, mint, marjoram and parsley) packs a punch of saltiness and umami all in one all-purpose seasoning. Admittedly the health benefits of the herbs may be compromised by the temptation to dip and lick the mix straight off your fingers, but if you’re going to overload your plate with salt, this really is the salt to do it with.

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