Why Spices Are Good for You: The Health Benefits of Spices in Food

Disclaimer: Results are not guaranteed*** and may vary from person to person***.

health benefits of spices

Using spices to freshen up meals may be as beneficial for your general health as it is for your taste buds. Originally used as additive flavorings, spices are growing in popularity worldwide as part of a natural treatment plan for diseases, infections, and disorders. Their healing ability is attributed to the antimicrobial properties of the plants they derive from. We will examine the many potential health benefits of spices in detail.

Spices are made of the seeds, bark, stems, and roots of various plants and trees. They also are dried portions of fruits and vegetables. The chemical compounds in most spices allow for longer-term food storage without the use of artificial preservatives.

Spices offer an array of flavorings, depending on the source of the plant. A bitter tasting spice can be created by using cloves, cumin seeds, bay leaves, horseradish, mace, and fenugreek seeds.

Earthy smells and flavorings will come from geosmin compounds, which are abundant in cumin and saffron.

Sweet spices include caraway, nutmeg, cardamom, sesame seeds, allspice, fennel, star anise seeds, and poppy seeds.

Peppers, mustard seeds, and chilies are the popular “hot” spices added to foods. Garlic also falls under this category.

It is important to understand that a spice is different from a herb, although both are used for medicinal purposes. While a spice derives from any non-leafy portion of a plant, a herb is taken only from the flower or leaf. Herbs are mostly fresh leaves, whereas the dried portion of the plant offers the spice ingredient.

Health Benefits of Spices

The natural compounds in spices offer flavor, an attractive coloring, and nutrients. Depending on the plant source, trace amounts of essential nutrients, including protein, can be found in spices.

As small quantities of spices are used in food and in remedies, any caloric amount is minute. Furthermore, any vitamin and mineral content is not likely to negatively alter the body’s chemical processes, so there is little risk of ingesting excess amounts, or food poisoning. Spices also generally do not cause side effects.

1. Allspice

The combination of flavors such as cinnamon, cloves, pepper, and nutmeg can be found in the berry of the Pimenta dioica tree. Known appropriately as allspice, it is commonly used in Caribbean, Latin American, and Middle Eastern dishes.

Allspice contains the anti-inflammatory properties of eugenol and gallic acid, which have been shown in clinical studies to prevent the spread of cancer cells and limit tumor growth.

Allspice may also help stimulate bone growth, improve digestion, lower blood pressure, alleviate pain, treat oral disease, and support the immune system.

2. Anise Seed

The anise seed derives from the Apiaceae plant family and offers a licorice flavor with a sweet smell. This attractive aroma is attributed to the chemical compound, anethole.

As a spice, it adds beneficial vitamins and minerals to the diet. These include copper; manganese; iron; potassium; calcium; magnesium; and vitamins A, B, and C.

These nutrients provide antioxidant, antiseptic, antispasmodic, digestive, carminative, and expectorant properties. Anise seeds could potentially improve the health of your immune system and skin by promoting proper circulation.

3. Arrowroot

Nutrients such as iron, copper, potassium, and vitamin B can be found in arrowroot. This spice is a starch derived from tropical plants, including cassava.
Arrowroot may help with balancing blood sugar levels, diarrhea, constipation, and other digestive issues. A 2000 pilot study found that arrowroot was effective for treating diarrhea in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) patients, possibly due to its ability to increase fecal bulk.

It might also support proper blood circulation, lower blood pressure, boost metabolism, increase oxygen supply, and help to prevent birth defects.

4. Bay Leaf

An exception to the leaf-free spice rule is the bay leaf, from the Laurel tree. It is a popular flavoring commonly used in soups, casseroles, and main dishes.

Ingested whole, the bay leaf offers a strong odor and bitter taste. Dried leaves can be ground into a spice and give off a floral fragrance with a scent similar to thyme and oregano.

Bay leaves are thought to help to boost general health by supporting the immune system, promoting good oral health, protecting the heart, reducing anxiety, improving hair and skin health, increasing metabolism, and helping prevent anemia and cancer.

5. Black Pepper

A healthy dash of black pepper can add much more than a zip to meals. This spice has important minerals like manganese, zinc, iron, and potassium.

Piperine and other anti-inflammatory elements may treat gastrointestinal issues such as bloating, gas, and inflammation. Research indicates that black pepper may boost hydrochloric stomach acid, which helps your body better digest foods. It may also help with weight loss, control blood pressure, and regulate the heart rate.

Black pepper has been studied as a preventative measure in the fight against cancer. It has been shown to impair the development of harmful free radicals, which can lead to life-threatening diseases and disorders.

One study suggests that black pepper may help smokers stop tobacco use. Some withdrawal symptoms may be alleviated through the inhalation of black pepper essential oil.

6. Cayenne Pepper

Cayenne pepper derives from the Capsicum genus of flowering plants. It acts as an antioxidant, as it has flavonoids; potassium; manganese; and vitamins B6, C, and E. These may work to fight, and prevent, the harmful free radicals that can lead to infections and disease.

In addition to the hot chili flavor, cayenne pepper may help boost the metabolism, reduce blood pressure, regulate blood sugar levels, stimulate the release of toxins, and clear sinuses.

Cayenne pepper has been used to speed up the repair of cells damaged by frostbite and stomach ulcers.

7. Capers

Capers are the flower buds of the perennial plant Capparis spinosa, and are often used in Mediterranean dishes. These tangy, lemon-flavored buds offer vitamins A and K, along with iron, calcium, copper, niacin, and riboflavin.

These nutrients and antioxidants like rutin and quercetin could potentially help treat and prevent diseases such as cancer, diabetes, rheumatism, flatulence, and congestion. Capers may help boost the immune system, reduce cholesterol, strengthen blood vessels, improve circulation, and reduce the clotting of blood.

8. Caraway Seed

The caraway seed derives from the Umbelliferae, or Apiaceae, plant family, as do dill, anise, fennel, and cumin. These seeds have an earthy, sweet taste and create a warming sensation when added to dishes.

Caraway seeds are believed to offer antioxidant, antimicrobial, antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, and carminative properties.

Known scientifically as Carum carvi, caraway seeds boast calcium, iron, copper, potassium, zinc, selenium, manganese, magnesium, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and pyridoxine. These nutrients may help to control blood pressure, treat atherosclerosis, promote proper digestion, help with weight loss, support heart health, promote good sleep, and alleviate menstrual cramps.

A rat study published in Research in Pharmaceutical Sciences investigated the effects of both caraway hydroalcoholic extract and its essential oil on colitis and found that the treatments reduced colon tissue lesions and colitis indices in the animals.

9. Cardamom

Used traditionally as both a medicinal and gastronomic spice, cardamom is referred to as the “Queen of Spices.” This is due to its place as the world’s third-most expensive spice.

Cardamom contains potassium, manganese, riboflavin, niacin, and vitamin C. These components may lower blood pressure, reduce muscle spasms, boost circulation, stimulate metabolism rate, support digestion, and work as a diuretic.

The results of 2017-published study showed that cardamom powder supplementation could prevent obesity and improve glucose intolerance, inflammation, and oxidative stress in the liver of high-carbohydrate, high-fat diet induced obese rats.

10. Cinnamon

The popular aroma of cinnamon comes from the inner bark of trees belonging to the genus Cinnamomum. As a sweet and spicy flavoring, cinnamon is used in various recipes and dishes as well as a natural remedy for illnesses.

It has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may help support good heart health, blood pressure, the development of strong bones, fight infection, alleviate pain, treat inflammation, and boost cognitive function.

Cinnamon is thought to be a preventable tool in the fight against cancer.

11. Cloves

The clove spice comes from the flower buds of the clove tree, Syzygium aromaticum. It is believed to offer antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, carminative, anesthetic, and anti-flatulent components.

These natural medicinal properties may work to support the immune system, maintain bone strength, prevent cancer, and treat oral issues.

Also read: Clove Essential Oil: Health Benefits, Facts, and Uses

12. Cumin Seed

The Apiaceae plant family provides the cumin seed from the flowering fruit herb known as Cuminum cyminum. The earthy, spicy flavoring of the seed makes it a popular choice in various dishes.

Cumin seeds are also used as a natural remedy for digestive issues, heart disease, and infections due to the presence of anti-inflammatory, carminative, and antioxidant properties.

The seeds may relieve nausea, vomiting, insomnia, and inflammation; improve bone strength; reduce high blood pressure; boost red blood cell count; and possibly help prevent cancer and macular degeneration.

13. Fennel Seeds

The seeds of the fennel plant, Foeniculum vulgare, offer an anise-like licorice flavor with a more bitter taste. These tiny seeds contain zinc, iron, copper, potassium, manganese, selenium, magnesium, calcium, and vitamin C.

Eating fennel seeds after meals has been a long tradition in many households to fend off bad breath and treat digestive conditions. In addition to reducing bloating, calming diarrhea, and relieving constipation, fennel seeds are thought to control blood pressure levels, purify blood, treat acne, alleviate asthma symptoms, and help to improve eyesight.

Fennel seeds also have been shown to play a role in the prevention of cancer and premature aging.

Also read: Fennel Tea: Health Benefits, Side Effects, and Recipes

14. Fenugreek Seeds

Fenugreek seeds are among the oldest herbal remedies from Greece and Egypt. Used as both a flavoring and medicinal aid, these seeds contain fiber, fatty acids, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins.

The anti-inflammatory and analgesic components may offer treatment for digestive issues, high blood pressure, constipation, high cholesterol, unbalanced insulin levels, inflammation, and skin injuries such as cuts and wounds.

15. Garlic

The sulfur properties of Allium sativum, or garlic, provide the strong aroma and taste of the herb. It also contains B vitamins, vitamin C, calcium, zinc, and iron.

It is important to note that garlic must be consumed in quantities larger than 100 grams to gain the nutritional value.

Garlic is a popular spice for its taste and the reported health benefits of regulating blood pressure, relieving cough and cold symptoms, controlling cholesterol levels, treating heart disease, supporting the immune system, and potentially preventing cancer.

16. Ginger

The common ginger spice derives from the Zingiber officinale plant. It offers anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, analgesic, carminative, and antioxidant components.

These could potentially treat pain, digestive issues, respiratory problems, and degenerative conditions. Ginger is also used to settle a troubled stomach and improve appetite, and it’s been promoted as a tool in the prevention of cancer.

Also read: Health Benefits of Ginger Tea: Nutrition Facts and Healthy Recipes to Try

17. Horseradish

Horseradish, Armoracia rusticana, is high in vitamin C, fiber, potassium, calcium, folate, zinc, magnesium, and manganese. These vitamins and minerals may calm irritated nerves, treat respiratory issues, promote weight loss, strengthen bones, alleviate inflammation, promote digestion, and support a functioning immune system.

The antioxidant properties have been studied for their potential to fight, and prevent, the harmful free radicals that cause cancer.

18. Mace

Derived from the nutmeg fruit, mace has a stronger aroma and chemical potency than the nutmeg kernel, despite their shared origin. Mace offers vitamins A and C, iron, copper, magnesium, calcium, manganese, and carotenes.

These nutrients have carminative, digestive, antidepressant, antifungal, and even aphrodisiac properties. As such, mace is used to strengthen bones, treat insomnia and depression, boost circulation and libido, support the immune system, alleviate gas build-up, and target depressive symptoms.

19. Mustard Seeds

The mustard plant, of the Brassica genus of vegetables, provides mustard seeds. These seeds have A, B, C, E, and K vitamins, as well as iron, copper, zinc, selenium, calcium, and manganese minerals. These nutrients offer antioxidant potential.

A glucosinolate found within called sinigrin may be a preventive spice in the fight against cancer.

Mustard seeds are used to regulate blood sugar and cholesterol levels, boost metabolism, support the nervous system, and increase red blood cell production.

20. Nutmeg

Nutmeg has a bittersweet flavor that is popular in sweet and savory dishes and as a natural health remedy with its antioxidant, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties. These, along with the mineral and vitamin content, may provide treatment for digestive issues, flatulence, oral disease, pain, insomnia, and a lacking sex drive.

Nutmeg might also aid in detoxification of the body and potentially help manage blood pressure.

This spice may help fight degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s by boosting cognitive function. Nutmeg is also taken for its reported anti-cancer activity, which may be useful in the prevention of cancers such as leukemia.

21. Saffron

The spice saffron is found in the Crocus sativus plant. Saffron offers a light flavoring and aroma, as well as carminative, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-spasmodic properties.

Saffron is medicinally used to stimulate menstruation, induce sweating, treat insomnia, release muscle tension, lower high blood pressure, boost mood, fight infection, promote red blood cell production, and balance hormone levels.

Animal studies have shown saffron to lower cholesterol by up to 50%. It may be one of the most beneficial spices for heart health by working to strengthen the circulatory system.

This spice may also help reverse memory loss, prevent cancer, treat hair loss, and protect from the common cold.

22. Turmeric

Turmeric, known scientifically as Curcuma longa, contains the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound curcumin. This active ingredient makes turmeric a functional food.

The deep yellow spice has long been used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine and South Asian cuisine, offering a bitter flavor with an aroma of orange.

The medicinal properties are used to control blood pressure, detoxify the body, treat heart diseases, prevent blood clots, reduce inflammation, slow down the aging process, manage diabetes, control blood sugar levels, and alleviate pain.

23. Tamarind

The tamarind spice, known as Tamarindus indica, has been shown in clinical studies to regulate cholesterol levels, strengthen bones, promote proper blood circulation, support the walls of the blood vessels, and treat digestive issues.

This sweet and sour fruit source is also used to alleviate pain, improve vision, treat respiratory issues, and prevent formation of cancerous cells.

24. Vanilla Beans

The thin pod of the vanilla orchid is used to flavor dishes as well as to treat ailments, diseases, and disorders. Vanilla bean health benefits are attributed to anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. This spice contains B vitamins, iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and manganese.

These agents may potentially help regulate cholesterol levels, reduce inflammation, boost the immune system, ease tense nerves and muscles, improve metabolism, strengthen bones, control blood pressure, and lower rapid heartrate.

Research has focused on the success of vanilla bean use for destroying cancer cells and treating sickle cell anemia.

The Health Benefits of Spices May Work for You

Spices are commonly used to boost the flavor of dishes such as entrees and desserts. S, Some spices may be also used as a natural remedy to treat, and even prevent, the symptoms of illnesses.

The essential vitamins and minerals found in many spices work with potentially healing compounds like anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and analgesic agents.

Whether mild or picant, spices have traditionally been used to improve health with mostly anecdotal success. However, scientific research has made great gains in identifying the active ingredients in spices and their health benefits in relieving or reversing mild and life-threatening diseases.

If you are currently on medication for any health condition, it’s important to consult with your doctor before discontinuing use or adding any of the above spices to your regimen. Spices may cause allergic reactions or negatively interact with certain drugs.

Also read:

Article Sources (+)

Chomchalow, N., “Spice Production in Asia – An Overview,” Journal; http://www.journal.au.edu/au_techno/2001/oct2001/article6.pdf, last accessed March 20, 2018.
“What Are the Health Benefits of Spicy Foods?” SF Gate; http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/health-benefits-spicy-food-7569.html, last accessed March 20, 2018.
“Availability of Spices on the Rise in the U.S. Food Supply,” United States Department of Agriculture; https://www.cnpp.usda.gov/sites/default/files/nutrition_insights_uploads/Insight39.pdf, last accessed March 20, 2018.
Petitpain, D., “Holiday spices that may actually make you healthier,” Medical University of South Carolina, November 20, 2014; http://academicdepartments.musc.edu/newscenter/2014/fall-spices.html#.WrI2WejwbIV, last accessed March 21, 2018.
Cooke, C., et al., “Arrowroot as a treatment for diarrhoea in irritable bowel syndrome patients: a pilot study,” Arquivos de Gastroenterologia, Jan. to Mar. 2000; 37(1):20-4; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10962623, last accessed March 21, 2018.
“Black Pepper,” Jon Barron; https://jonbarron.org/herbal-library/foods/black-pepper, last accessed March 21, 2018.
“Cayenne Pepper Health Benefits,” Cayenne Pepper Diet; http://cayennepepperdiet.org/cayenne-pepper/cayenne-pepper-health-benefits, last accessed March 21, 2018.
Keshavarz, A., et al. “Effects of Carum Carvi L. (Caraway) Extract and Essential Oil on TNBS-Induced Colitis in Rats,” Research in Pharmaceutical Sciences, Jan. to Mar. 2013; 8(1): 1–8; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3895295/, last accessed March 22, 2018
“Spices,” Antioxidants; http://www.antioxidants.org/spices, last accessed March 22, 2018.
Rahman, M., et al., “Cardamom powder supplementation prevents obesity, improves glucose intolerance, inflammation and oxidative stress in liver of high carbohydrate high fat diet induced obese rats,” Lipids in Health and Disease, 2017; 16:151; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5557534/. last accessed March 22, 2018.
Arora, S., “9 Health Benefits of Fennel Seeds,” NDTV Food, August 24, 2017; https://food.ndtv.com/food-drinks/unveiling-the-health-benefits-of-fennel-seeds-1287281, last accessed March 23, 2018.
Kamalipour, M., et al., “Cardiovascular Effects of Saffron: An Evidence-Based Review,” The Journal of Tehran Heart Center, 2011;6(2):59-61; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3466873/.
Chainani-Wu, N., “Safety and anti-inflammatory activity of curcumin: a component of tumeric (Curcuma longa),” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Feb. 2003; 9(1):161-8; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12676044.
“The Spice Series: Vanilla,” The Homestead Garden; https://www.thehomesteadgarden.com/the-spice-series-vanilla/, last accessed March 23, 2018.