Q: Do the little bit of herbs and spices that I add to foods (and cocktails) really do anything for me?
A: The health impact of 1/4 teaspoon of a spice like rosemary isn’t much as dose matters, but the conglomerative impact of the bioactive compounds in herbs and spices adds up.
As a general rule, the health benefits of spices is greatly overstated because the limiting factor is dose. Cloves are a perfect example of this. Cloves contain more polyphenols (a class of antioxidant) than just about any other food or spice. There are 17.6 grams (g) of polyphenols per 100g cloves. When you make a pumpkin pie, you will add 1/4 teaspoon cloves—just a little more than 1g—for the entire pie. So while cloves are packed with antioxidants, you use them in such small amounts due to their pungent flavor, which is in part due to their high polyphenol content, that the health benefit for that dose is essentially nonexistent.
This isn’t always the case, though. Studies show a benefit of cinnamon on blood sugar control starting at a dose of 1 teaspoon. It isn’t unreasonable to put that much cinnamon in your oatmeal, cereal, or smoothie each morning—and easily reap the physiological benefit.
But with every spice or herb providing different effects at different dosages, it can be hard to make sense of it all. My advice: Don’t worry and just focus on what I call “nutrient stacking.” This is a phrase that I use with clients to describe the cumulative beneficial effects of eating a variety of healthful nutrients. Adding spices and herbs to your diet is a virtually calorie-free way to increase the flavor of the foods that you eat, and it adds to the overall healthfulness of your diet.
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According to the McCormick Science Institute, there are 41 different species and herbs consistently used in America. Of these 41 spices and herbs, the following have been flagged as potentially garnering significant health benefits.
- Black pepper
- Red/cayenne pepper
A 2011 study from Penn State found that adding 1 tablespoon of a spice blend containing several of the above spices yielded a 21 percent decrease in post-meal insulin levels, suggesting that the addition of the spice mix leads to better blood sugar management.
At a macro-level, the consistent use of spices and herbs in your cooking will lead to lower levels of oxidative stress, inflammation, and better blood sugar management through the stacking of the benefits of spices and herbs like the ones listed above. But rubbing a chicken breast with turmeric so that the cucumin in the turmeric will relieve your joint pain is wishful thinking.
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If there is a specific long-term effect that you are trying to elicit from a specific spice or herb, then I recommend that you look into a supplement. For example, curcumin is a powerful anti-inflammatory compound found in turmeric, but only about 3 percent of turmeric is curcumin. A low dose of cucumin is 500 milligrams (mg) a day. This means that you’d need to eat a heaping tablespoon turmeric each day, every day to start benefiting specifically from curcumin’s health properties. This is not realistic, but taking two capsules of a curcumin supplement that also usually contain piperine, an extract from black pepper that enhances absorption, is definitely doable.
So keep eating a variety of herbs and spices so you can stack their nutritional effects, and if there is a specific effect you are trying to elicit with a specific spice or herb, take a supplement.