sage stuffing, garlic bread, pump- kin pie laced with cinnamon , ginger , nutmeg and cloves - Thanksgiving dinner offers a feast of herbs and spices. Turns out all those sharp tastes can actually be body boosters. The experts agree that these natural flavouring agents, high in antioxidants and aromatic oils, have antimicrobial and physiological effects. The question is how much you actually have to ingest to get the benefits.
The amounts used in cooking may make a difference. A recent study on lung cancer, for instance, found that those who consistently consumed sage in their diet were at lower risk of developing the illness. At the very least, taste bud titillation produced by herbs and spices can encourage us to eat healthy meals and lessen our cravings for excess salt, fat and sugar.
Food spiced with garlic , onions , ginger, fenugreek and lemon grass may help keep your blood and arteries healthy. Onions, garlic, basil , mint , oregano , rosemary , thyme , parsley , turmeric , ginger, coriander , cumin and other common herbs have been found to contain cancer-fighting compounds. Regular consumption of antimicrobial plants - oregano, thyme, cinnamon and other tropical spices - might lower your risk of infection.
Go easy on the cayenne and chili pepper, though, as too much of these seasonings may increase your risk of gastrointestinal damage and cancer. Our most common table companion, black pepper, has a checkered reputation - it contains some substances associated with bladder cancer, but in animal experiments also has health-promoting effects.
To up your food's nutrient and flavour quotient, use fresh herbs whenever you can. Keep jars of minced garlic and ginger on hand for hurried cooking. Other tasty edibles can grow in pots on the windowsill for easy access. Popular Eastern spices like coriander and cumin seeds are best fresh ground and briefly sautéed in ghee or oil before use to help make their fat-soluble nutrients available.
what the experts say
"The unique flavours of culinary herbs enable less salt to be used. Onions, rosemary, sage, thyme and other herbs contain substantial levels of flavonoids. Flavonoid intake is associated with a lower incidence of heart disease and stroke. Paprika ' s red colour is due to a carotenoid pigment that protects cells against oxidative damage. Persons with a high intake of carotenoids typically have a reduced risk of cancer. Ginger and garlic have (positive) anti-blood-clotting properties."
WINSTON J. CRAIG , professor of nutrition, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan
"Cooked garlic has immune- and digestive-enhancing effects and helps against flu and cold. Cinnamon is a good prophylactic against colds and flu. Add thyme to cooking right at the end because it has a lot of volatile oils. It helps maintain upper respiratory health. Turmeric strengthens and stimulates the secretions of the liver, and is great for the skin and hair. Ginger strengthens and nourishes the nervous system, so it's a great anti-stressor. Parsley is loaded with minerals and builds the blood. Add cilantro to everything: it binds mercury and takes it right out. Sprinkling freshly ground pepper on melons stops intestinal gas. Eat an onion a day before travel as a prophylactic for dysentery and GI tract problems."
PENNY MACKAY, clinical herbalist, Oakville
"Every day I give people spice mixtures specific for their health needs. Some scientists theorize that India doesn't have as much Alzheimer's because Indians cook with turmeric all the time. (However) in Ayurveda the whole idea of giving capsules of turmeric (or other herbs) is seen as completely misguided. When you hit the body with a high amount of an isolated spice, you can create imbalances. Cooking fresh food with the spices creates balance. Black pepper is used in most Ayurvedic formulas to help bioavailability (of other needed substances to the brain). In Ayurvedic practice it's better not to use spices totally raw. Sautéeing them slightly will help make the herbs more effective."
NANCY LONSDORF, MD, Ayurvedic physician, medical director, the Raj Ayurveda Health Center, Vedic City, Iowa
"A lot of studies show that some spices may have potential health benefits. Some have antioxidant activities, some antiviral or antibacterial effects, some anti-inflammatory action. It's not clear whether the levels taken in by humans in food are high enough to produce the effects seen in research studies. A number of herbs and spices) tested in humans don't show the same effects as in the animal model and that may be because the dose is too low, or maybe the treatment time is not long enough.'
LILIAN THOMPSON, professor of nutritional sciences, University of Toronto
"Culinary spices and herbs have small amounts of certain nutrients and phytochemicals. The effects are small and not well documented, unless you eat a lot of them. The challenge is getting people to eat healthy things. To the extent that herbs can make a whole-grain pasta or beans and rice or vegetables taste good (they are health-enhancing). Herbs are also about mental health. They increase the enjoyment of eating. Use fresh herbs - some herbs don't keep their flavour when dried. Generally they should be added at the end of cooking. You need about three times as much fresh herb as dried."
YVONNE TREMBLAY, food consultant/nutritionist, author, Thyme In The Kitchen: Cooking With Fresh Herbs