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12 Healthy Spices and Herbs You Need in Your Kitchen

Turmeric

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Turmeric has been used for thousands of years to treat a variety of conditions such as arthritis, joint pain, diabetes, digestive issues, and cancer. Turmeric contains an active component called curcumin, which may stop cancer from spreading, help prevent type 2 diabetes, and fight back against dangerous inflammation within the body. This vibrant, healthy spice can be sprinkled into grain dishes, sauces, curries, or even smoothies. Turmeric can also be used to make tea or golden milk—we’re wild about this Iced Vanilla Golden Milk Latte. (Did you know you can use it in face masks, too?).

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Rosemary

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Rosemary is a fragrant, versatile herb that's related to mint (it's also excellent in essential oil form). For any small-spaced dwellers looking to develop their green thumb, it’s very easy to grow indoors and may be used in cooking as a dried and fresh herb. Rosemary extract contains polyphenols that have been associated with anti-cancer effects, among other health benefits such as improved digestion, stable blood pressure, and memory preservation. It also contains antibacterial and antioxidant rosmarinic acid.

While grilling and sautéing items such as steak or pork requires little to no added fat (compared to other cooking methods such as frying), cooking at high temps produces compounds called heterocyclic amines, which are harmful free radicals that may cause cancer, explains Hannah El-Amin, R.D., a dietitian based in Chicago, Illinois. Luckily, marinating meat in a mixture made with rosemary before firing it up prevents the formation of heterocyclic amines by as much as 84 percent, one Kansas State University study found.

Rosemary Marinade: Combine two tablespoons of olive oil; one-half cup of lemon juice; half a garlic clove, minced; and one tablespoon of rosemary to make a marinade for chicken or steak. Mix together equal parts rosemary, thyme, and oregano, and rub the mixture directly onto chicken breasts, suggests Limor Baum, R.D., a registered dietitian in New York City.

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Black Pepper

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Black pepper is a healthy spice that stimulates the digestive enzymes of the pancreas, which enhances food absorption. Translation: Your body will score more nutrients. Black pepper has also been found to have anti-tumor and anti-mutagenic properties—it protects against oxidative damage by free radicals thanks to its antioxidant activity. Yes, all that in humble black pepper! Grind and use this healthy spice to add depth to soups, salads, meat, grain dishes, and more.

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Oregano

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As far as healthy spices go, oregano might seem unassuming, but it packs plenty of nutrients. It contains vitamins A, C, E, and K, as well as a little fiber, folate, vitamin B6, iron, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. This herb is also rich in antioxidants and has been studied for its anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties. Oregano and oregano oil have been linked with cancer-fighting qualities as well.

"I think of dried oregano leaves as miniature salad greens," says Wendy Bazilian, R.D., a California-based dietitian. One teaspoon contains not only six micrograms of bone-building vitamin K but also the same amount of antioxidants as three cups of spinach. To use it, give canned soup an upgrade by stirring in one-half teaspoon of oregano or make a salad dressing.

Oregano dressing: Heat one tablespoon of olive oil, a pinch of red pepper flakes, and one-half teaspoon of oregano in a small pan over medium-low heat for two minutes, or until the mixture smells fragrant. Drizzle over spinach with a splash of red wine vinegar. (Related: 3-Ingredient Salad Dressings You Can Whip Up In No Time)

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Cayenne Pepper

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Capsaicin, the compound that gives cayenne its burn, also "helps crank up your body's thermostat, firing up your metabolism and helping you burn extra calories and fat," Bazilian says. Purdue University researchers found that people who added half a teaspoon of this healthy spice to their meal ate 70 fewer calories at their next meal and craved fatty, salty foods less.

Stir a dash of cayenne into a tub of store-bought hummus, sprinkle the healthy spice over whole wheat toast topped with mashed avocado or add one-fourth teaspoon of paprika (another capsaicin-containing spice) and a few shakes of cayenne to air-popped popcorn. For a sweet treat, Bazilian recommends savoring an ounce of spicy dark chocolate, like Lindt Excellence Chili Dark Chocolate bar.

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Nutmeg

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Despite having a hint of sweetness, this spice may help prevent cavities. "Your mouth is a hotbed of bacteria, and nutmeg fights the germs with antibacterial compounds," Bazilian says. Chief among them is macelignan, which reduces plaque formation and cavity-producing microbes. Additionally, nutmeg is rich in protective anti-inflammatory compounds that can lower your risk of cancer by stifling tumor growth, Aggarwal says.

Add one-fourth teaspoon of ground nutmeg to ground coffee. Or follow Bazilian’s lead and make slow-cooker chili with one-fourth teaspoon of ground nutmeg, one-half pound of ground turkey or chicken, browned; two 14-ounce cans of chickpeas, drained and rinsed; two 14-ounce cans of diced tomatoes; one-fourth teaspoon of cinnamon; one-eighth teaspoon of garlic powder; and salt and pepper to taste cooked on low for four to six hours.

Related: 5 Healthy Herbal Tonic Drinks That Give You a Wellness Boost

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Paprika

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Paprika is part of the Capsicum family of peppers, which includes sweet bell peppers, hot green peppers, hot red peppers, and several other varieties. Peppers are noted for antioxidant activity, and paprika packs a potent punch. If that isn't impressive enough, a teaspoon of paprika has 37 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A, and it also contains some iron (about 1.4 milligrams per teaspoon, which may not sound like a lot but goes a long way toward the recommended daily 8 to 18 milligrams).

Enjoy this healthy spice in soups and stews to add a smoky note or as a garnish for foods like deviled eggs or potato salad. It's also great in a marinade or spice rub.

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Cumin

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Often described as that spice that makes Mexican food taste like Mexican food, cumin can actually be used in many types of cuisines, depending what you mix it with. In a study of overweight individuals given cumin capsules, weight-loss drug Orlistat, or a placebo for eight weeks, those given the cumin had weight and BMI changes comparable to the Orlistat, and improved insulin response when compared to the Orlistat and the placebo. Cumin has also been researched for use in conditions like diabetes and cancer. Its medicinal properties are thought to come from phenols and flavanols present in cumin.

Try it in soups, stews, or sprinkle over roasted veggies for a warm, healthy spice boost. 

Related: 7 Healthy Ways to Bring Middle Eastern Cooking Into Your Kitchen

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Curry Powder

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The starring role in this blend of herbs and spices belongs to turmeric, which contains curcumin, a powerful anti-inflammatory "that's 50 times more potent than vitamin C or E," says Bharat Aggarwal, Ph.D., author of Healing Spices. In fact, curcumin could inhibit the growth of certain breast cancer cells, and other research suggests it may also protect against stomach and colon cancer.

Rub curry powder on halibut, tilapia, or pork loin before roasting. Or try it in this light-but-luscious soup recipe from chef Aliya LeeKong: Place two halved and seeded butternut squashes cut side up on a baking sheet; drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and roast at 400 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes. Meanwhile, over medium heat, sauté two onions, chopped; three garlic cloves, minced; two tablespoons of curry powder; and salt to taste in one tablespoon of olive oil until the onions are soft. Working in two batches, scoop the roasted squash into a blender and puree with the cooked onion mixture, six cups of chicken broth, and one-third cup of crème fraîche until smooth.

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Ginger

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This go-to winter spice has various components that have been studied for their possible role in managing and preventing disease, thanks to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Ginger has been used therapeutically since ancient times and is a common remedy for nausea, bloating, and gastrointestinal discomfort. It's been used to treat morning sickness and chemotherapy-induced nausea. It has also been studied as a possible aid in weight management for its potential to increase satiety. (Discover even more about ginger’s many wellness benefits.)

The healthy spice can also lessen workout-induced soreness: People who consumed one teaspoon of ground ginger daily for 11 days experienced a 25 percent reduction in exercise-related muscle pain compared with those taking a placebo, one study found. (Gingerol, a chemical in ginger, is thought to reduce inflammation and block nerve pathways that process pain.)

Add 1/8 teaspoon of ground ginger to pancake, waffle, or muffin batter, Bazilian suggests, or sprinkle the spice over applesauce or toast with peanut butter. Ginger works equally well in sweet and savory dishes, as this scrumptious selection of ginger recipes proves.

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Cinnamon

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Cinnamon is a healthy spice that has been used as a traditional remedy for a variety of ailments, ranging from digestive issues to diabetes, infection, and more. Recent research has shown promise in its ability to help manage blood sugar and cholesterol levels, too. A seesawing blood sugar level can drive hunger and cravings; the antioxidant compounds in cinnamon help prevent those spikes and dips by improving the way your cells metabolize glucose, El-Amin says. (Related: The Health Benefits of Cinnamon)

Just 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of this healthy spice daily has been shown to be enough to help lower blood sugar, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and triglycerides in people with type 2 diabetes. Sprinkle cinnamon over oatmeal, toast, applesauce, or plain yogurt. It's also delicious added to ground coffee when you're brewing a pot.

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Garlic

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Although not technically a spice, garlic (or garlic powder) is an easy way to dress up your food with added benefits. Different compounds in garlic have been shown in a variety of clinical and experimental studies to benefit cardiovascular disease risk. For example, garlic supplements are sometimes used to treat high cholesterol and have shown promise in blood pressure management. In addition, garlic destroys cancer cells and may disrupt the metabolism of tumor cells, says Karen Collins, R.D., nutrition advisor to the American Institute for Cancer Research. "Studies suggest that one or two cloves weekly provide cancer-protective benefits."

Saute fresh garlic over low heat and mix with pasta, red pepper flakes, and Parmesan cheese. "Let garlic sit for 10 to 15 minutes after chopping and before cooking so the active form of the protective phytochemicals develops," says Collins. 

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