Spices have long had a place in our kitchens and traditional medicines, but it’s only recently that science is beginning to unearth their many benefits. Their bold flavors can add taste to dishes without the need for salt, processed ingredients, fats and chemical flavorings. They’re great for developing an adventurous taste in your little ones at an early age, too – especially when kids are involved in meal prep! Proceed with caution, though – the hotter you go, the more irritating spice can be on digestive systems that are sensitive or weakened through illness. We’ve compiled a list of our favorite mild, gentle spices to give your dishes a nutritional and flavorful kick.
This woody, wintery spice comes from the bark of cinnamomum trees in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Indonesia, Bangladesh, India and China. Used for thousands of years for its fragrance, medicinal and culinary properties, cinnamon’s distinctively comforting scent and taste are due to cinnamic aldehyde and cinnamaldehyde.
Cinnamon is antiseptic and a local anesthetic (1) and can help reduce serum glucose, triglyceride and LDL cholesterol, reducing risk factors for diabetes and cardiovascular disease (2). Extremely high in antioxidants, cinnamon can support digestive and liver health and reduce risk factors for chronic diseases by neutralizing damaging free radicals and lowering chronic inflammation. It also increases gastro-intestinal enzyme secretions to help with digestion (3).
It’s packed with nutrients, too – potassium, manganese, iron, calcium and zinc, plus vitamins A, Niacin, pantothenic acid, pyridoxine, and phenolic antioxidants. Sprinkle cinnamon on oatmeal, fruits, bake with winter squash, use with cacao, and add depth to Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern and Moroccan dishes like this moroccan style couscous.
A key spice in European cuisine, the warm, sweet, peppery caraway seed is used remedially in traditional medicine due to its many health-benefitting nutrients.
The rich fibre in caraway seed aids digestion, binds to toxins and protects the colon mucosa from cancer, and binds to bile salts to decrease re-absorption. Caraway may reduce LDL cholesterol and triglycerides (4). Packed full of flavonoid antioxidants (5) caraway can protect against cancer, ageing, infection and degenerative neurological diseases. It is a strong source of iron, copper, calcium, zinc, selenium, manganese, potassium and magnesium, as well as vitamin A, E, C, and B-complexes.
Caraway’s sweet, peppery flavor can be used in salads, breads, cabbage soups and stews, but my favorite way? Roasted with carrots, to bring out their delicious sweetness.
One of the most commonly used spices, the aromatic coriander (cilantro) seeds have been used in traditional medicine for centuries, as a digestive aid or chewed for halitosis. The distinct taste and qualities of cilantro herb is well-known, but the seeds are full of goodness too.
Various fatty acids and essential oils are the active principles responsible for coriander’s digestive and carminative properties. Rich in fiber, coriander seeds may protect against colon cancer (6), and their anti-inflammatory properties against neurodegenerative diseases (7).
Very high in vitamin C, coriander seeds also contain iron, manganese, zinc, potassium, calcium, magnesium, B-complex vitamins and antioxidants. The aromatic spice is used in Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Middle Eastern and European cooking.
Of the Zingiberaceae family, cardamom’s sweet seed pod has been used for many years in cooking and medicine. Native to Southern India, the floral, camphor-like flavor is used in spice mixes, with fruits, in baking, with squash, yams, sprouts and other vegetables and in rice and quinoa dishes.
But cardamom is more than a versatile ingredient – its many essential volatile oils make it useful as an antiseptic, antispasmodic, anti-emetic, diuretic, and to help with digestive issues. It’s high in iron, for red blood cell formation and cellmetabolism, and its diuretic and sedative effects may help with hypertension and epilepsy (8).
Cardamom is also rich in riboflavin, niacin and many other vital vitamins, as well as manganese, magnesium and potassium for bone health. It’s also extremely antioxidant, for many health-promoting and disease-preventing benefits. Try it baked into your next batch of muffins!
From the Myristica Fragrans tree, an evergreen native to the Indonesian Moluccas (Spice) Islands, nutmeg is known for its aromatic, healing and aphrodisiac properties. Its warm, nutty flavour complements cinnamon, and it can be used in rice pudding, oatmeal, on fresh fruit and in spice mixes and curry powders.
Nutmeg is an antifungal, antidepressant, digestive and carminative. Beneficial to nervous and digestive health, the essential oils that lend its flavor include eugenol, used for toothache relief, and myristicin and elemicin, which have neurological stimulant properties. Nutmeg contains copper, potassium, iron, magnesium, zinc, calcium and manganese, as well as folic acid, vitamin C, B-vitamins and is rich in antioxidants beta-carotene and cryptoxanthin, essential for optimum health.
Saving the best till last! This yellow spice has earned itself quite the reputation recently, after being used in India for thousands of years medicinally. There are many quality studies into its massive benefits for the body and mind.
The active ingredients, curcuminoids, are powerful antioxidants (12, 13) – when consumed with black pepper, curcumin’s absorption increases by 2000%. However, curcumin is unique in that it boosts the body’s own antioxidant enzymes (14, 15).
Being highly antioxidative, curcumin is great at reducing chronic inflammation, which is a risk factor for many chronic illnesses including heart disease and cancer (16).
In fact, curcumin was proven more effective than pharmaceutical anti-inflammatory drugs, but without those nasty side effects!
Curcumin also can improve brain function and risk of mental health problems (17, 18) and Alzheimer’s (19). It can boost cardiovascular health (20) and is more effective in treating arthritis than anti-inflammatory pharmaceutical drugs! (21). Most impressive is turmeric’s ability to prevent cancer growth and even kill cancer cells (22,23).
The earthy, peppery turmeric can be grated or sliced fresh, for a bright taste, or for a milder, earthy taste used dried and powdered. It’s a common ingredient in curries and stews and in spice mixes. Make your own warm turmeric mylk.