Aside from the fact that they're one of the most straightforward ways of keeping a simple and healthy diet delicious exciting (who says grilled chicken breast is boring? Not with the right spices and marinade, it's not!), like herbs, spices have played a major role in natural remedies for centuries. After all, the spice traders of the Middle Ages did not risk their lives and make their fortunes in the pursuit of rare plants simply because of their pleasing aromas and flavours. Certain spices are also considered to be precious because of their health-boosting properties, and have been said to help heal everything from wounds and scrapes to morning sickness. Here are a few to try for yourself.
Cinnamon’s medicinal properties have been recognised for thousands of years – even the ancient Egyptians used this sweet and savoury spice. A brown powder made from the ground-up bark of the stems of the cinnamomum tree, cinnamon is a popular spice that can be sprinkled on your cappuccino, or added to recipes for baked goods and pies. In some cultures, it's even used in savoury dishes to flavour everything from grilled chicken to ground meat (yes, really!). A powerful anti-inflammatory and a source of antioxidants, you may think such a small dose wouldn’t be enough to give you the full benefits of the active ingredient – an oil known as cinnamaldehyde. However, a mere 120 milligrams per day has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease.
Turmeric is another spice that's well-known for its antioxidant properties. With a warm, bitter taste, this yellow spice is commonly used as a flavouring in Asian food and curries. Thought to improve a whole host of conditions, from heartburn to headaches and arthritis to bronchitis, the key ingredient in turmeric is curcumin, a compound that is believed to act against an enzyme that can turn toxins into carcinogens. It's also been shown to help promote healthy skin, and can be used in face masks and as ingested concoctions.
Old folk remedies involving ginger have been proven to have scientifically verifiable results. This fiery root can be used to relieve nausea, loss of appetite, and even pain. In fact, the benefits of the spice have been understood in Chinese culture for more than 3,000 years and today, Gingerol – the bioactive component in fresh ginger – is still used to treat seasickness and morning sickness during pregnancy.
Black, red, pink, cayenne – there are many forms of pepper, and some of us would have every single one of them on our pizza if it was an option. Voyages have been launched and wars fought over the various fruits from this family of vines, and we pepper-lovers love it not just for the taste, but for the essential oils like piperine, which bring the heat while enhancing digestion and immune system functions.
Garlic’s kiss-repelling smell – especially when eaten raw – may not do wonders for your breath, but the sulphur compounds that give it that strong taste and aroma are also believed to offer medicinal benefits. With the power to regulate blood pressure and blood sugar, and lower cholesterol, it is thought that a regular dose of garlic can help to prevent heart attacks, reduce the risk of strokes, and clear up infections. It is even claimed that garlic has cancer-fighting benefits.