When it comes to healthy eating, spices and herbs change everything. Of course, they bring in tons of flavor with just a flick of the wrist. But even more importantly, spices and herbs can also score you some major health points. Here are seven of our favorites to get you started.
This quintessentially autumnal spice is not only delicious but also healthy. Sue Petersen, MSACN, an applied clinical nutritionist in New York, says that cinnamon promotes decreased tension of the blood vessel walls. This helps the heart by ensuring that blood is properly flowing throughout your body. Research also indicates that cinnamon has a positive effect on blood sugar levels and is a natural antioxidant, a fancy term for a molecule that fights free radicals. What exactly are free radicals? Those are the bad guys that cause cell damage. They can be anything from carcinogens to bacteria on a mission.
To eat more cinnamon, sprinkle it on your cereal, oatmeal, or latte. Add it to baked sweet potatoes or carrots for full-on autumn vibes. While you’re at it, don’t forget to take a whiff; smelling cinnamon relaxes the mind and nerves, according to Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art by Kathi Keville and Mindy Green.
Kick your brain into gear with an extra dose of rosemary. A study by the Medical Journal of the Islamic Republic of Iran found that rosemary increases enzyme activity in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls long- and short-term memory. And according to Helen Mullen, RD, CDN, a clinical dietitian in New York, rosemary is another natural antioxidant.
Rosemary is extremely versatile, making it an excellent addition to eggs, pastas, and burgers. Jill Norman, author of Herbs & Spices: The Cook’s Reference, states that because rosemary isn’t destroyed by cooking, it’s best to add it early on. This way, the meal really soaks in the flavor. Try mixing it into your favorite sugar cookie recipe for an unconventional twist.
Just like rosemary, sage can rev up your brain power. Pharmacology Biochemistry & Behavior reported that sage has the ability to boost memory in healthy young adults. Specifically, the study found an improvement in immediate word recall. This may be especially useful if you can never seem to remember people’s names or the street you parked your car on! Another study by the Journal of Psychopharmacology lists less mental fatigue and improved attention as further benefits of sage.
Because sage isn’t a very subtle flavor, Norman suggests using it sparingly. Sage pairs well with apples, onions, cheese, and tomatoes. Fresh sage leaves also make for charming garnishes. Use them to top off a pasta dish or salad for a fancy finished meal.
Feeling down? Saffron may be able to help you out. According to the Journal of Integrative Medicine, this warm and earthy spice can alleviate the symptoms of depression. A second study by the Journal of Integrative Medicine states that these antidepressant properties may be due to saffron’s ability to regulate mood-controlling neurotransmitters in the brain. Specifically, we’re talking about serotonin. Low levels of this neurotransmitter have been attributed to poor mood and depression. Saffron works by keeping serotonin in the brain longer, which can help improve feelings of depression.
Saffron is also beneficial for keeping your eyes in check. A study by Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science discovered that the carotenoids in saffron can improve age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Symptoms include vision loss and impairment due to the natural process of aging. This condition is common and expected, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to prevent it. Plus, in the age of technology, our eyes can use all the help we can give them.
Carotenoids are the major players in the benefits of saffron. These natural pigments are responsible for the red, orange, and yellow colors of carrots, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin. Some carotenoids are even found in green leafy veggies. In the body, carotenoids keep the blood flowing to the eyes, which improves the integrity of the retinae. Increasing blood flow doesn’t just prevent AMD; it can also treat later stages of AMD.
Because saffron is an intense spice, you only need a pinch to enhance a meal. Norman warns against overusing it; adding too much will result in a bitter, medicinal taste. Instead, sprinkle it into vegetable or chicken stew. If you’re feeling adventurous, add it to the flour of cakes and breads. “You can also infuse saffron into the liquid component of recipes,” Petersen says. Infuse cream, milk, and smoothies, or try combining saffron with white wine for a flavorful, delicious sauce to bake fish in.
Excuse us while we gush about how amazing ginger is. It has a ton of flavor and a long list of health benefits. Food and Chemical Toxicology states that ginger can relieve arthritis, muscle aches, sore throats, and vomiting. Because ginger increases blood circulation, it can also naturally boost your energy sans caffeine.
Tea made of fresh ginger root, hot water, lemon, and honey is an easy way to up your ginger intake. It may take some time getting used to, so start making tea with a small amount of ginger. Other ways to eat this flavorful superfood include using it in sauces, dressings, or sautéed vegetables.
Ginger’s cousin, turmeric, proves that good traits must run in the family. “Turmeric is a common treatment for joint pain,” Mullen says. “It also contains an active ingredient, curcumin, which is an antioxidant.” According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, curcumin encourages bile production, which may help digestion and absorption of nutrients.
Often used in Indian cooking, turmeric gives color to curry, mustard, and cheese. Its earthy flavor is quite strong; a little goes a long way. Add it to lentils, vegetables, and rice dishes for a tasty, healthy meal. “You can even use it with a little olive oil and garlic to dress up your stove-popped popcorn,” Mullen says.
If you’re looking to relieve stress (aren’t we all?), try upping your oregano intake. Herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, author of Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide, says that oregano has a soothing effect that may even help with insomnia and other sleep issues. The Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry also found that oregano prevents the hardening of the arterial walls, a condition known as atherosclerosis. By activating protective molecules in the layers of the blood vessels, oregano works to make sure that your organs are getting the blood they need.
Thanks to its strong flavor, oregano is best in heartier meals such as thick soups and vegetable soups, Norman suggests. To get the most out of it, pair it with cilantro in a homemade pesto. Or try mixing it with some olive oil for a simple and light dip for toast or crackers.
When it comes to herbs and spices, Petersen reminds us to opt for fresh over processed. “You can’t be sure how long they’ve been on the shelf or if anything was added to them,” she cautions. So go enjoy spicing up your cooking—and your health!