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The Health Benefits Of Spices

While spices provide an excellent accent in the very best of recipes, historically, spices have been revered by cultures the world over for their accompanying medicinal properties, some tracing back thousands of years. Nature has created spices with a two-fold purpose, not only to impart zest to our favorite recipes, but to promote human health and wellness as well. There is no doubt that through the ages, spices have helped us achieve a healthy body balance. Let's take a peek at some of the more popular culinary spices and their accompanying culturally deep rooted medicinal properties.

Cinnamon, the bark of an evergreen tree, is described as sweet, aromatic, warm and pungent. Varieties of cinnamon abound, over one hundred, but the most used are Chinese cinnamon (Cinnamomun aromaticum) and Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamonum zeylanicum). Chinese cinnamon originated in western Sumatra and is currently cultivated in Indonesia, China and Vietnam. Ceylon cinnamon originated in Sri Lanka (formerly called Ceylon) and grows in Madagascar, Caribbean, India, Burma, Sri Lanka and Brazil.

Cinnamon oils are used as an antiseptic and anti-microbial agent. Cinnamon has been demonstrated in studies to have anti-inflammatory as well as anti-clotting properties. More recently, cinnamon has been found to be beneficial in helping to regulate blood sugar levels, which is important to diabetics.

Cayenne Pepper, made from the plant's ripened small-berried fruit; (Capsicum frutescens) derives its name from its local of origin, which is the French Guianan Cayenne region. The pepper we generally enjoy is actually a blend of chilies ground to powder, but the cayenne type is typically referred to as ‘Bird Chile. Other ‘spicy' sounding names are Chilliepin, Guinea Pepper, and Mad Pepper.

When cayenne is ingested along with liquid vitamins, minerals and other supplements, it promotes greater assimilation of nutrients. Cayenne's principal medicinal elements include capsaicin, capsanthine, flavonoids, beta-carotene, and vitamins C and E. Cayenne helps reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels, platelet aggregation and it reduces chances of arteriosclerosis.

Cloves (Syzygium aromaticum) are the unopened, immature, four-petaled flower buds that resemble a nail, hence the name from the Latin “clovus”, meaning nail. Cloves are a tropical evergreen tree of the Myrtle family that can reach a height of 20 feet and requires warmth and humidity to thrive. Aromatic cloves originated and are still cultivated in the North Molucca Islands, called the “Spice Islands”, of Indonesia. They are grown in Malaysia, Tanzania, Moluccas, Sri Lanka, Ceylon, Brazil, West Indies, Mauritius, Panang, and Madagascar.

Cloves are described as intensely aromatic, sweet, pungent, astringent and warm, with a peppery burning taste. Examples of clove blends are curry powder and Chinese five spice. Cloves have been used as a deodorant for the body and breath. Cloves have been used as a treatment for nausea, vomiting, indigestion, sluggish digestion and stomach ulcers.

Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) derives its name from the Greek “koris” that means bedbug, as the crushed unripened plant smells of crushed bugs. Coriander originates in Mediterranean countries but has been grown in Asia and the Far East for thousands of years. Coriander is now cultivated worldwide, significantly in Holland and Morocco. Ancient Romans used coriander for food and for medicinal purposes.

Coriander has been used to stimulate and soothe the digestive tract, as a carminative to relieve gas in the gastro-intestinal tract, and to treat intestinal cramping and colic. Research shows that coriander possesses anti-inflammatory properties and may be beneficial in the treatment of arthritis

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) has edible stalks, leaves and roots and produces a spice in the seed portion of the plant. The Latin word, foeniculum, means “little hay.” Fennel seeds (Anethum foeniculum) have a flavor similar to anise, a more pungent flavor than the stalks and stems. Fennel has its origins in the Mediterranean and the Near East. Ancient Greeks used fennel to signify victory. Fennel is described as sweet, warm and aromatic, tasting like anise. It is used in some curry powders, is an ingredient in Chinese five spice and is used in gin and several other liquors.

Fennel has been used to treat gastric discomfort such as cramps, flatulence and colic. Fennel has also been used to treat jaundice and colic.

Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) has its origins in the Near East, Southern Europe, India and China and is now grown in France, Argentina, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Ethiopia. Historically, the Romans called fenugreek, “Greek hay,” and used it to feed cattle. Other names for fenugreek are: Bird's Foot, and Goat's Horn. It is now widely enjoyed as a culinary spice, especially in the Middle East, the Far East and India. Fenugreek is aromatic, bittersweet, and strong, with a bitter aftertaste.

In India, fenugreek is used both medicinally as well as a food. Fenugreek contains the steroid, saponin diosgenin that is valuable in the pharmaceutical production of progesterone. Fenugreek has been used with success to treat high blood sugar. Fenugreek also has been shown to help soothe the digestive tract.

Garlic (Allium sativum) has its origin in Asia and is now grown worldwide, mostly in warm areas such as the Mediterranean, Italy, France, and California. Historically, garlic is recorded as being consumed by Egyptian pyramid builders and is referenced in the Bible as being used by Hebrews. Garlic used to be considered a panacea for sickness in general and a remedy in case of poisoning. Garlic is described as acrid, sharp, fiery and alliaceous.

Garlic contains allicin, responsible for the powerful aroma and is one of garlic's several health promoting antioxidants. Garlic is rich in naturally occurring phytonutrients. Garlic's phyto-chemical makeup also benefits those experiencing problems associated with aging, improves blood sugar and blood clotting and assists with hypertension and cholesterol.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) has its origins in China and India and is now cultivated in Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Nigeria, and the West Indies. The Chinese have used ginger medicinally as documented in Confucius' writings. Arab use of ginger is spoken of in the Koran. In Britain in the 1800's, ginger was added to beer to make "ginger ale", and farmers rubbed ginger onto horse's ‘hind-parts' for some giddy up. Ginger is described as warming, aromatic, pungent and even fiery.

Historically Ginger has been used to reduce inflammation due to arthritis and rheumatism. Ginger increases blood circulation and detoxifies the excretory system. Ginger has been used with success to treat upset stomachs, nausea and morning sickness.

Mint has its nomenclature derived from the Greek mythology of a nymph named Minthe, who, after causing marital problems with Hades, is turned into a sacred herb by him. The two most popular species of mint are spearmint (Mentha spicata) and peppermint (Mentha piperita). Spearmint and peppermint have been touted as being spiritually uplifting and symbolize wisdom. England acquired mint from Rome. Japan processed peppermint into menthol. Spearmint and peppermint are described as fresh, sweet, cooling, aromatic and menthol.

Medicinally, mint has been used to treat respiratory conditions, colds, and fever, throat, ear and sinus infections. Mint has been used for improved digestion and as a stimulant.

Mustard seeds (Brassica Alba or Sinapis nigra) originated in the Mediterranean and are currently grown in the U.S., Canada, England, France, Germany, Denmark, Holland, Japan and China. Ancient China used mustard and ancient Greece and Egypt also used it medicinally and for culinary spice. The belief in ancient Greece was that mustard was given by the god of healing, Asclepious. Missionaries from Spain introduced mustard to America. Mustard is described as pungent, sharp and fiery.

Mustard seeds have to been used to treat sluggish bowels and indigestion. As mustard is warming, it has been used to treat sore muscles with external application.

Nutmeg (Muriatic fragrans) is an evergreen tree with origins in the Moloccas, the Spice Islands of Indonesia and is now grown in the West Indies. Nutmeg is the seed of the fruit with mace as the seed's coating. Until 1512, nutmeg was made available to Europe as imported crops by Arabs, but the islands were taken by the Portuguese who were attracted to the nutmeg, mace and cloves and then by the Dutch in 1602. Later, Nutmeg was secretly stolen by the French and planted on Mauritius Island, by Madagascar. Finally, the British conquered the Moluccas islands in 1796 and had the desire to expand nutmeg production. They cultivated nutmeg on other East Indian islands, including the Caribbean. Grenada is also called Nutmeg Island. Nutmeg is described as nutty, sweet, warm and aromatic. It is used with spicy and sweet recipes such as desserts, candies, soft drinks and eggnog.

Nutmeg has been used to treat digestive disorders.

Saffron (Crocus sativus) originated in the Near East and Asia Minor and now grows in Austria, Iran, China, India and in the Mediterranean. Saffron is also grown in Saffron Walden in England, whose coat of arms depicts saffron crocuses. Saffron was introduced to England by Rome. Legend has it that when England lost saffron in the Dark Ages, one solitary crocus was smuggled back from the Holy Land by a traveler from whence all subsequent saffron came. In Greek mythology, Smilax, a nymph who spurns Crocos' romantic advances, becomes a purple crocus flower. Saffron is described as bitter, pungent, floral and intense.

Medicinally, saffron has been used to treat dysentery, to remedy poisoning, as an antispasmodic, a cardiovascular tonic and as a urinary tonic. Saffron is thought to benefit eye sight.

Don't be afraid to add a little spice to your life.

Dr. Linda Posch MS SLP ND

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