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Think Spice: 8 Spices with Health Benefits

If you’ve ever tried chia seed pudding, you know that superfood doesn’t always equal superdelicious. Before you buy another bag of something that looks as if it belongs in a bird feeder, consider this: Just a pinch of oregano can turn even grilled cheese into a disease-fighting dish. “Technically, spices are vegetables in concentrated form,” says Wendy Bazilian, RD, the nutrition adviser for the Golden Door Spa & Fitness Resort in Escondido, California. “Like veggies, they contain thousands of healthy phytonutrient compounds, including antioxidants.” But spices are calorie-free and require no prep. Pop the tops on these eight pronto.

Curry Powder
Health Perks
The starring role in this blend of herbs and spices belongs to turmeric, which contains curcumin, a powerful anti-inflammatory “that’s 50 times more potent than vitamin C or E,” says Bharat Aggarwal, PhD, a professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and the author of Healing Spices. In fact, one study shows that curcumin inhibits the growth of certain breast cancer cells, and other research suggests it may also protect against stomach and colon cancer.

How to Use It
• Rub curry powder on halibut, tilapia, or pork loin before roasting.
• Try it in this light-but-luscious soup recipe from Aliya LeeKong, the culinary creative director and chef for Junoon restaurant in New York City: Place two halved and seeded butternut squashes cut side up on a baking sheet; drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and roast at 400 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes. Meanwhile, over medium heat, sauté two onions, chopped; three garlic cloves, minced; two tablespoons of curry powder; and salt to taste in one tablespoon of olive oil until the onions are soft. Working in two batches, scoop the roasted squash into a blender and puree with the cooked onion mixture, six cups of chicken broth, and one-third cup of crème fraîche until smooth.

Health Perks
While grilling and sautéing require little to no added fat, cooking at high temps produces compounds called heterocyclic amines, which are harmful free radicals that may cause cancer, explains Hannah El-Amin, RD, a dietitian at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Luckily, marinating meat in a mixture made with rosemary before firing it up prevents the formation of heterocyclic amines by as much as 84 percent, a study at Kansas State University found.

How to Use It
• Combine two tablespoons of olive oil; one-half cup of lemon juice; half a garlic clove, minced; and one tablespoon of rosemary to make a marinade for chicken or steak.
• Mix together equal parts rosemary, thyme, and oregano, and rub the mixture directly onto chicken breasts, suggests Limor Baum, a registered dietitian in New York City.

Health Perks
“I think of dried oregano leaves as miniature salad greens,” Bazilian says. One teaspoon contains not only six micrograms of bone-building vitamin K but also the same amount of antioxidants as three cups of spinach. And preliminary research indicates that oregano can help fend off stomach flu. “Bacteria often hitch a ride on the food we eat, and oregano may keep them from multiplying and making us sick,” Bazilian says.

How to Use It
• To make salad dressing, heat one tablespoon of olive oil, a pinch of red pepper flakes, and one-half teaspoon of oregano in a small pan over medium-low heat for two minutes, or until the mixture smells fragrant, Baum says. Drizzle over spinach with a splash of red wine vinegar.
• Give canned soup an upgrade by stirring in one-half teaspoon of oregano.

Health Perks
A seesawing blood sugar level can drive hunger and cravings; the antioxidant compounds in cinnamon help prevent those spikes and dips by improving the way your cells metabolize glucose, El-Amin says. What’s more, research shows that eating half a teaspoon of cinnamon daily reduces risk factors for diabetes and heart disease within six weeks.

How to Use It
• Baum tops baked sweet potatoes with a dash each of cinnamon and nutmeg.
• The spice pairs well with lentils, says LeeKong. She cooks one cup of dried green lentils in two cups of vegetable stock with a cinnamon stick (which is removed before serving) for a hearty side dish.

Health Perks
Besides helping to settle an upset stomach, this peppery spice can also lessen workout-induced soreness: People who consumed one teaspoon of ground ginger daily for 11 days experienced a 25 percent reduction in exercise-related muscle pain compared with those taking a placebo, one study shows. (Gingerol, a chemical in ginger, is thought to reduce inflammation and block nerve pathways that process pain.) And Thai researchers recently found that middle-aged women who took a daily ginger supplement for two months exhibited a greater attention span and scored higher on memory tests than women who took a placebo.

How to Use It
• Add one-eighth teaspoon of ground ginger to pancake, waffle, or muffin batter, Bazilian suggests, or sprinkle the spice over applesauce or toast with peanut butter.
• For a 160-calorie dessert, sprinkle ground ginger over one-half cup of vanilla frozen yogurt topped with half a small pear, sliced.

Health Perks
Despite having a hint of sweetness, this spice may help prevent cavities. “Your mouth is a hotbed of bacteria, and nutmeg fights the germs with antibacterial compounds,” Bazilian says. Chief among them is macelignan, which reduces plaque formation by 50 percent and eradicates cavity-producing microbes, according to Italian researchers. Additionally, nutmeg is rich in protective anti-inflammatory compounds that can lower your risk of cancer by stifling tumor growth, Aggarwal says.

How to Use It
• Add one-fourth teaspoon of ground nutmeg to ground coffee.
• Bazilian makes slow-cooker chili with one-fourth teaspoon of ground nutmeg, one-half pound of ground turkey or chicken, browned; two 14-ounce cans of chickpeas, drained and rinsed; two 14-ounce cans of diced tomatoes; one-fourth teaspoon of cinnamon; one-eighth teaspoon of garlic powder; and salt and pepper to taste cooked on low for four to six hours.

Cayenne Pepper
Health Perks
Talk about red hot: Capsaicin, the compound that gives cayenne its burn, also “helps crank up your body’s thermostat, firing up your metabolism and helping you burn extra calories and fat,” Bazilian says. In a study at Purdue University, people who added half a teaspoon to their meal ate 70 fewer calories at their next meal and craved fatty, salty foods less.

How to Use It
• Stir a dash of cayenne into a tub of store-bought hummus, sprinkle the spice over whole wheat toast topped with mashed avocado or add one-fourth teaspoon of paprika (another capsaicin-containing spice) and a few shakes of cayenne to air-popped popcorn.
• For a sweet treat, Bazilian recommends savoring an ounce of spicy dark chocolate, like Chocolove Chilies & Cherries in Dark Chocolate or Lindt Excellence Chili Dark Chocolate bar.

Health Perks
One tablespoon of these aromatic seeds fulfills 22 percent of your daily requirement for iron, a mineral that helps keep your energy level high and your immune system in flu-fighting shape. And according to preliminary research, cumin may also boost your brainpower: In an animal study, consuming cumin extract was shown to improve performance on memory tests.

How to Use It
• Toss 10 medium carrots, sliced, with two tablespoons of olive oil, two-and-a-half teaspoons of kosher salt, and two teaspoons of cumin seeds; roast at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes.
• Toast one-half teaspoon of cumin seeds in a pan for about five minutes over medium-high heat, then add them to a pot of rice before cooking, LeeKong says.

Keep It Spicy
Just like fresh produce, spices pack less of a punch — for your taste buds and your health — over time. Here’s how to make sure yours have plenty of kick.

Read the fine print.
Most spices have a “best by” date on the bottle. If they don’t, write the date of purchase on the cap. Toss dried herbs and ground spices after two years and whole spices after three.

Keep your cool.
Moisture and heat can suck the life out of your spices fast, so store them in a dark, relatively cool and dry place (that is, not above your stove), Limor Baum, RD, says.

Whole up.
When possible, purchase whole spices, like black peppercorns and cumin seeds, and grind them yourself as needed with a mortar and pestle or a spice or coffee grinder.

Show off.
Keeping your spices organized can prevent you from leaning too heavily on salt. Clean out your junk drawer and fit it with an in-drawer rack.

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