Spice Up Your Life!

While eating out is fun, cooking at home became the norm during the pandemic. And a recent study by consumer market research firm Hunter shows that 71 percent of people in the U.S. will continue to cook at home after the pandemic is over. This new normal is driven by wanting to save money (67%), eat healthier (56%) and feel good (56%). And what’s happening after cooking at home for so long? Trying new things. People are expanding their cooking skills with different spices and herbs. Adventurous eating isn’t just for restaurants anymore. Here are some great herbs and spices to try!

Garlic is one of my personal favorites and a staple in many cuisines. Nothing beats a kitchen filled with the scent of sauteed garlic and onions ready to be used in a favorite recipe. What’s more, garlic has multiple health benefits. In a study of 41,000 women aged 55-60, those who routinely ate garlic, fruits and vegetables had a 35% lower risk of colon cancer. Garlic is also a wonderful anti-inflammatory. The Arthritis Foundation even recommends it to help prevent cartilage damage from arthritis. If you have sore muscles or joints, rub them with garlic oil.

Studies have shown garlic to have a positive impact on your arteries and blood pressure, though be sure to speak with your doctor before making changes to your medications. Garlic can be complicated, and in some cases may present a digestive challenge. So if you haven’t used garlic much, start by adding it sparingly and ramp-up. Deciding to use raw or cooked garlic can change its health rewards. Raw gives you the most benefits, but if you choose to cook it, don’t heat it above 140°F (60°C). One way to keep garlic cool is to add it when you’re almost done cooking.

Cinnamon is another very popular spice with multiple benefits. It is a powerful antioxidant, helps fight inflammation and can lower cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood, according to various studies in the National Library of Medicine database. Rush University Medical Center has found that it can reverse biomechanical, cellular anatomical changes and protect the brains of mice with Parkinson’s disease. Studies have shown it can lower blood sugars in various ways and that diabetics can reduce fasting blood sugars by 10-29% with a 0.5-2 teaspoon dose of cinnamon per day. Put 1 teaspoon (2.6 grams) in a cup of boiling water, stir and enjoy!

While many of us think of sage around the holidays (old-fashioned stuffing anyone?), it’s a great addition to lots of recipes. Sage is a member of the mint family, along with oregano, rosemary, basil and thyme. Small amounts pack a great punch. High in vitamin K, sage also contains magnesium, zinc and copper—all important minerals for your body. Antioxidant vitamins A, C and E are found in small amounts in sage. 

Sage doesn’t appear to have any side effects when consumed under normal conditions, but you can overdo it. Drinking too much sage tea or consuming sage essential oils is dangerous. Never consume any type of essential oil and limit yourself to 3-4 cups of sage tea to be safe. Sage is best used as an herb in cooking. Try it with chicken, perogies, creamy pasta dishes or cured meats. Yum!

The spice turmeric is getting a lot of attention these days. If you’re not familiar with it, turmeric gives mustard and curry their vibrant coloring. Curcumin gives turmeric its golden color and has both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Researchers are investigating its potential as a treatment for different health conditions, including reducing pain and easing movement for osteoarthritis sufferers. One clinical trial showed that 90 milligrams of curcumin taken twice a day for 18 months helped improve memory performance in adults without dementia. Another study shows that it may also lessen symptoms of depression by increasing levels of serotonin and dopamine, the chemicals that regulate your mood and other body functions. While many studies on the benefits of curcumin are ongoing, you can easily add it to your cooking routine. While it’s safe to take up to 8 grams per day, most sources recommend a lighter dose (500-1,000 milligrams a day). The risk of side effects is low and drug interaction is unlikely, but stop taking it if you notice ill effects.  Tumeric may cause bloating and a possibility that it may interact with blood-clotting medications. Avoid it if you have gall bladder disease. Check with your doctor to make sure that you’re good to go. And remember, the yellow coloring can stain easily. Try not to spill on your clothes while cooking!

A popular evergreen shrub native to the Mediterranean, rosemary is used in cooking all over the world. It can be eaten dried or fresh and is popular in teas and cocktails as well as food. Rosemary is high in manganese, which is an essential nutrient for metabolic health. It helps the body form blood clots, allowing your injuries to heal faster.

Rosemary has a number of other health benefits including a potentially reduced risk of cancer, stress reduction and immune system support. Carnosic and rosmarinic acids in rosemary have been found to have powerful antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties. Traditionally, rosemary has been used for centuries to improve memory—and studies in aromatherapy have corroborated some of these claims. One study found significant improvement in cognitive performance within 20 minutes of inhaling rosemary essential oil. Rosemary is a nutritious herb, but it is not for everyone. According to WebMD, large amounts should be avoided during pregnancy. It’s incredibly easy to cook with rosemary as any internet search will show you. Salmon with rosemary is one of my favorites!

Saffron—the stamens of the saffron crocus—is inarguably the most expensive spice in the world. One pound (450 grams) can cost between $500 and $5,000 US. Saffron is harvested by hand, making production costly: it takes more than 150 flowers to make 1 gram of saffron. Used for thousands of years as a spice, a dye and a medicine, saffron is a powerful antioxidant containing crocin, crocetin, safranal and kaempferol. Studies have shown both crocin and crocetin may have antidepressant properties, improve inflammation, reduce appetite and aid weight loss. Safranal gives saffron that wonderful taste and smell. Research from the National Institutes of Health database has shown it may help improve your mood, memory and learning ability in addition to protecting your brain cells against oxidative stress. Kaempferol has been linked to reduced inflammation, anticancer properties and antidepressant activity. Only 30 milligrams of saffron per day have been shown to provide health benefits, but high doses (more than 5 grams) can be toxic. As with any supplement, check with your doctor before taking saffron in supplement form. If you do purchase supplements, beware of any product that appears too cheap and make sure you purchase it from a reputable brand. In small doses, saffron is easy to add to your diet. It’s delightful in savory dishes and a fast internet search will provide you with lots of recipes!

Cooking should be fun and adding new herbs and spices to your dishes will change up the flavors in amazing ways. Experiment with your family and friends and find new ways to try old favorites!