My last column discussed how excess sodium in our diet could lead to high blood pressure, higher risk of heart disease, stroke, kidney disease and more. This column focuses on replacing high-sodium salt with beneficial herbs and spices. So what are herbs and spices?
A culinary herb is the leaf of a plant, which can be used in cooking. All other parts of the plant, such as the buds, bark, roots, berries, seeds, and flower stigma are considered a spice. In the past I have written about the antioxidant benefits of fruits and vegetables. Herbs and spices contain a very concentrated source of polyphenols, which act like antioxidants. Research shows that adding herbs and spices to your food can protect you against certain chronic conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
Herbs and spices also add flavor without adding calories, and they may help you decrease your usage of salt, fat, and sugar. Also, relatively small amounts of herbs and spices can make a big difference in your overall health.
You are probably wondering if there is a difference between fresh and dried herbs and spices. When using dried herbs and spices, purchase brands with “best by” dates and store them in airtight containers away from heat, moisture, and direct sunlight. According to Dr. David Heber, MD, PHD, and professor of medicine and director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, double the amount of fresh herbs and spices to obtain the same amount of beneficial substances as the dried version.
Let’s look at a few herbs and spices. Research has shown that adding cinnamon to your daily diet, along with weight loss and exercise, may be beneficial to people with type 2 diabetes. A recent study published in the March, 2010 Current Diabetes Reports showed Cinnamon to be helpful in the body’s use of insulin. Another note of interest, researchers at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center are studying how to halt the growth of stem cells that give rise to breast cancer. They are finding that by combining black pepper, and curcumin (the main ingredient in the curry spice turmeric) with breast cancer cells in a laboratory dish, the amount of stem cells were reduced without harming normal breast cells. Although this research has not been tested on humans, a trial is planned for the future.
Another spice, oregano, can be sprinkled on some of your favorite Italian dishes or on top of that plain cheese pizza. Oregano (translated “joy of the mountain”) has one of the highest antioxidant levels along with anti-microbial properties. The anti-microbial property of oregano fights pathogens responsible for food poisoning. Red pepper, including paprika and chili pepper contain capsaicin, which gives chilies their heat. Capsaicin, according to research has anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer affects. Some studies have shown that if your food contains red pepper you may eat less because it increases satiety. Try sprinkling some on your homemade hummus, or sneak it into stir-fries like I do.
So get creative, try herbs and spices instead of salt, fat, and sugar. It will help to improve your health and may even help you to drop a few pounds if that is a goal of yours. Remember salt is an addiction. I often tell my clients that it takes 21 days to “make a habit” or “break a habit”. How about giving yourself 21 days to not eat processed foods with excess sodium, cut down on eating out, and to replace your salt habit with healthy herbs and spices. The results may amaze you!