5 Herbs & Spices to Add to Meals for More than Just Flavor

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One of the many knocks you hear about “eating clean” is that it’s boring, mundane or just flat out doesn’t taste good. We all know that couldn’t be further from the truth, but there are still people who believe that everything that tastes good is bad for you.

Skeptics will ask, “Don’t you get sick of eating the same thing every day?” or “Healthy food is just so bland, how can you enjoy that?”

If you use a wide variety of herbs and spices, your chicken and veggies on Monday can have a completely different flavor complex than your chicken and veggies on Tuesday. You can literally change the dynamics of your meal with a pinch of this, a sprinkle of that and a little bit of creativity.

All it takes is a little bit of thought and your seasoning can take your food from 0 to 10. The best part? Herbs and spices that you add to food can enhance more than just the flavor of the food. It’s time to start looking at the big picture when it comes to seasoning – you can improve your quality of life with your spice choices!

Whether you’re trying to improve your immunity, prevent a certain disease, fight a disease or just consume as many healthy compounds as possible, here are 5 game-changing spices that add more than just flavor to your plate. 

Cinnamon in closeup

1. Cinnamon

Cinnamon is a sweet and savory spice with a woody scent that comes in stick, oil or powder form. Cinnamon comes in two main varieties; Cassia and Ceylon.

Cassia is the most common version, and can almost always be found at your local grocery. As a general rule of thumb, unless it is specifically labeled Ceylon Cinnamon, you can assume it is Cassia. While Ceylon is more beneficial, it’s also harder to find and much more expensive. If you can splurge, go with Ceylon but if you’re on a budget you’ll be fine using other varieties of this spice sparingly.

The benefits of Cinnamon date all the way back to thousands of years ago, which is part of what makes it one of the most popular spices produced and sold worldwide.

Cinnamon is loaded with antioxidants that protect the body from oxidative damage caused by free radicals, especially if you choose a high-quality product. When buying Cinnamon, look for products from Mexico or Norway to get the most authentic and beneficial product. According to The Antioxidant Food Table featured in Dr. Michael Greger’s How Not to Die, Cinnamon from these two countries has the highest antioxidant count. Cinnamon from Mexico can have up to 10-times the amount of antioxidants per serving than Cinnamon from India, the United States, and New Zealand.

This high antioxidant count is especially great for its anti-inflammatory properties. It’s been well documented that Cinnamon can aid in alleviating chronic inflammation in your joints and muscle tissue.

In addition to the antioxidant-related benefits, many believe that Cinnamon has a great role in managing insulin, decreasing your risk of cancer and fighting off bacterial viruses.

On top of all the awesome health benefits, Cinnamon also tastes great and has a versatile flavor that can be useful in almost any recipe.

A tasty way to use Cinnamon is in oatmeal or on sweet potatoes. Pretty common. It also tastes great on beef, in coffee and virtually anything involving apples. Also pretty common. Some less cliché ways to use Cinnamon are on butternut squash, lamb and paired with coconut. If you have a sweet tooth, Cinnamon and chocolate make a great team, but don’t overdo it!

 Turmeric Powder and Root on white Background

2. Turmeric

Turmeric, the yellow, peppery cousin of Ginger, is one of the most utilized spices in the world. Perhaps most well known as the main element in curry and mustard, it’s easy to see how Turmeric has such a widespread use.

The major component of Turmeric’s benefits is the active ingredient Curcumin, which gives it its yellow tint. Both Turmeric and Curcumin have been studied intensively to show the benefits of this spice.

For starters, Turmeric can expand antioxidant capacity in the body. Why is that important? With the improved ability to store antioxidants, you’re setting yourself up with an enhanced defense mechanism against free radicals and harmful oxidation that can damage your cells.

Another strong advantage of Turmeric, specifically Curcumin, is the dramatic effect it has on chronic, low-level inflammation. Some studies show that Curcumin is often just as effective as medications used to manage inflammation – but with absolutely none of the side effects.

Additional research is needed, but there seems to be an interest in using Curcumin/Turmeric to prevent and heal, chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Cancer and Arthritis. Of course, the medicine industry wants us to use drugs, but holistic approaches are starting to gain popularity – and more importantly, they’re starting to work.

So how do you work Turmeric into your diet? The easiest way is to add 1-2 servings into your post-workout protein shake. You won’t even taste it and it’ll get to work right away in the bloodstream. If you want to go with a more whole-food approach, try using a coconut curry sauce to tie a stir fry together. Honestly, you can add Turmeric to any savory meal that you don’t mind with a little extra kick. The taste is subtle when used properly, but the benefits are the real deal.

 

Ginger root isolated on white background

3. Ginger

Ginger is undoubtedly one of the healthiest spices available today. Especially popular in Asian and Indian cuisine, Ginger has a slightly spicy kick that makes it deliciously versatile. Ginger has been used for medicinal purposes nearly as much as it has been used for cooking.

The root, which is the main part of the plant that is used for consumption, can be juiced, diced, powdered, pickled or even eaten raw. Ginger has a long history and a great track record that continues to improve with modern studies.

Now that technology has advanced, we’re finding out that Ginger is even more beneficial than we ever knew, boasting important benefits to human health like reducing muscle soreness, aiding in digestion and managing cholesterol levels.

Gingerol, the main compound in Ginger, is highly potent and packed with antioxidants – as much as 24 mmol per 100g. This makes Ginger one of the most antioxidant-rich spices and a huge reason why it’s used so much as a natural healer.

If you’re ever nauseous or have digestive issues, making Ginger a part of your daily menu can help you eliminate discomfort.  Ginger Tea works especially well after a meal to help your body break down and digest the food.

Not a tea drinker? Try to incorporate Ginger into sweet and spicy recipes. It’s a pretty potent flavor that is at its best when toned down by a sweet component.

If you can handle it, the best option for a daily Ginger serving, would be 2 grams of ginger mixed with 6-8 ounces of water, the juice of a lemon, a pinch of sea salt and 1 tablespoon of Apple Cider Vinegar. Chug this elixir down first thing in the morning for an energy boost and all the benefits mentioned above.

 Spice Pouring - Cumin

4. Cumin

Cumin, my all-time favorite spice, originates from the Mediterranean and has a history of medicinal uses dating back more than 5,000 years. It’s earthy, warm aroma and unique flavor has a potent effect on food and health. Cumin is especially popular in Mexican culture and is also very popular in Vietnamese and Indian food today.

It’s cited in the Bible that Cumin was once so valuable for its medicinal benefits that it could be used as currency. Benefits that include improved immune support, healthier digestive processes and even enhances lactation in women are a few of the reason why Cumin should be a regular part of your diet.

In the case of digestion, the chemical compound in Cumin that is responsible for its aroma actually activates salivary glands in our mouth. Cuminaldhyde, in addition to Thymol, can stimulate the acids and enzymes in our gut to make digestion an easy going process.

Thymol also plays a vital role in lactation in mothers, along with the high count of Iron and Calcium in Cumin. Having a daily dose of Cumin during pregnancy and while you’re nursing will make an impact on a woman’s milk production and overall health.

Cumin’s best friends are Chili Powder, Honey, and lime. If you can find a recipe that calls for all 4, you’ve hit the jackpot. Even pairing Cumin with just one of these other ingredients can turn any dish into a masterpiece. A delicious breakfast recipe with a Cumin twist is eggs, potatoes and spinach seasoned with Cumin. It never gets old.

Cumin tastes great on poultry, rice and even on vegetables. There’s no wrong way to use it, especially when it offers the benefits that it does. The more the merrier.

 

fresh rosemary on white background

5. Rosemary

Last, but definitely not least, is Rosemary, a very fragrant sprig of evergreen that is a relative of the mint leaf. Like Mint, Rosemary has an awesome pine-like fragrance and a very distinct flavor. Other spices that belong to the Lamiaceae family include the previously mentioned Mint, along with Oregano, Thyme and Basil. All of these combined create a really amazing Italian flavor that is great on any type of meat.

Benefits of Rosemary are widespread. It is believed to have an effect on memory, mood, cognitive health, digestion and much more.  With an antioxidant load of up to 56 mmol per 100 grams, lab studies have shown Rosemary to assist with the body’s defense against free radicals and improved blood circulation.

In terms of brain health, this study shows that Carnosic Acid found in Rosemary may help prevent brain aging – even though further study is required to solidify this notion.

The uses of Rosemary are endless, but it seems to be a staple in Italian seasoning along with the other members of the Lamiaceae family. One of the most common uses of Rosemary is to infuse Olive Oil with it. Simply put a few sprigs of fresh Rosemary (or any other herbs) in a glass container with Extra Virgin Olive Oil and let it age. Any time you use that oil, you’re getting the flavor and health benefits of Rosemary in every bite.

All of these 5 herbs and spices are probably in your spice cabinet already, but you may not have known the importance of each. Think of these as more than just herbs and spices, or ways to make your food taste better. Now you can consider these ways to make your life better!

About Justin Ochoa

Justin Ochoa is the head personal trainer & gym manager at 1 & Only Fitness (Fishers, Indiana). A NASM-Certified Personal Trainer, Group Training Specialist, Fitness Nutrition Specialist and TRX Level 1 Coach, he works with a wide variety of clients ranging from professional athletes to rehabilitation patients. Besides lifting heavy objects and stuffing his face with reheated chicken breasts, Justin enjoys spending his time with his wife, son and dog. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook today.