The life in your spice – the health benefits of flavour
Should we eat more spices for our health's sake? It seems like each month there's tantalising new evidence of the power of some component of spice to improve our wellbeing. In February it was the turn of capsaicin, the ingredient that gives chilli it's heat and which – according to researchers at the University of Wyoming – may also prevent weight gain (at least if you're a mouse).
It's not the first time chilli and weight loss have been mentioned in the same breath – studies in both animals and humans suggest it may help burn fat and help with satiety, says Professor Linda Tapsell of the University of Wollongong's School of Medicine.
"But the evidence for capsaicin and weight loss suggests that the effect is small, so although it's worth adding more chilli to food it's not going to make a huge difference – and it's just one of many lifestyle changes you need to make to lose weight," she says.
Cinnamon is another example, with studies linking it to better blood glucose control in diabetes.
"But while it's great to add to food, I wouldn't be using it to improve blood glucose control with diabetes – blood glucose control relates to so many different factors including the size of the person and how much fat and carbohydrate they eat," she points out.
Another star in the spice rack is turmeric, which contains curcumin, a compound now being studied for its potential to prevent cancer and Alzheimer's disease.
In a study reported last year, researchers at Swinburne University's Centre for Human Psychopharmacology gave a curcumin supplement to one group of healthy older people aged 60 to 85 and a placebo to another.
"After 30 days the curcumin group had improved working memory and improved concentration compared to the placebo group – but the most striking effect was that the curcumin group also felt more alert and less fatigued. Another bonus was a drop in 'bad' LDL cholesterol," says Professor Andrew Scholey, one of the researchers.
Again it's not as simple as tossing more turmeric into the pot. The curcumin in the supplement – the equivalent of the amount in half a tablespoon of turmeric – was treated to make it more easily absorbed. When we eat curcumin in food, we only absorb a small amount, says Scholey which is why he speculates that in real life curcumin's effect on the brain may come from decades of daily consumption – which may help explain why levels of Alzheimer's disease in India are relatively low.
But although it's their possible role in disease prevention that grabs headlines, Tapsell believes spices can improve our health in another way – by boosting the flavour of healthy foods, which for years have had to compete with highly flavoured but not so healthy fast food or processed food.
"If you think about the mass production of food, we've had a narrowing of food flavours partly because salt is a cheap flavouring. We don't promote spices enough – they have huge potential to help us improve our diet," she says.
"With plant foods we're only just scratching the surface of understanding how they can improve our health – spices are part of the plant world and adding more of them to food is an easy way of capturing a variety of plant compounds that may have important benefits."
If you're looking for more ways to add chilli and turmeric to food – or to venture deeper into spice territory and make your own spice blends – a good place to start is the latest edition of The Spice and Herb Bible.
Chilli and turmeric are especially versatile so it's easy to include them regularly. Chilli enhances almost any dish, including basic scrambled eggs, says author Ian Hemphill – and you can be more generous with chilli in dishes like curries or soups by adding coconut milk to help tame the heat. Turmeric works well in stir-fries, chermoula and rice dishes as well as curry – and if you want to use the fresh root, store it an open container in a cupboard just as you'd store onions.
The Spice and Herb Bible 3rd Edition by Ian and Kate Hemphill is published by Robert Rose.