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Essential Herbs and Spices for a Healthy Diet

Most people think that herbs and spices simply add flavors to their foods. However, many herbs, spices, and even garnishes contain essential micronutrients that your body requires. Cooking with these ingredients not only adds flavor, but makes your meals more nutritious and more satisfying. Here are some important things you may not know about your favorite herbs and spices.

Most people think that herbs and spices simply add flavors to their foods. However, many herbs, spices, and even garnishes contain essential micronutrients that your body requires. Cooking with these ingredients not only adds flavor, but makes your meals more nutritious and more satisfying. Here are some important things you may not know about your favorite herbs and spices.

Popular Spices with Powerful Nutrition

Cardamom. Cardamom is a seed pod with a unique flavor, popular in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. It is also widely used in Scandinavian baked goods. Cardamom is absolutely packed with nutrition, and full of important minerals like potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, and manganese. Cardamom is also rich in vitamins, including riboflavin, niacin, and vitamin C. Finally, cardamom is full of volatile oils like pinene, myrcene, limonene, geraniol, and others.

Hot peppers. Hot peppers and pepper flakes are used in everything from Asian and Caribbean foods, to being sprinkled on pizza. Hot peppers are rich in vitamins like vitamin C and vitamin A, and B-complex vitamins like niacin, pyridoxine, riboflavin, and thiamin. They are full of minerals including potassium, manganese, iron, and potassium, and antioxidant flavonoids including beta carotene, alpha carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin. And of course hot peppers are famous for capsaicin, an alkaloid compound with a wide range of health benefits that we are just beginning to understand.

Cinnamon. Cinnamon needs no introduction, as a spice that has been prized for most of human civilization. But did you know that cinnamon has the highest antioxidant strength of any food we have yet tested? Cinnamon has several hundred more times oxygen radical absorbance capacity of other foods. It is rich in carotenes, zeaxanthin, lutein, and cryptoxanthin. It is also a great source of potassium, magnesium, zinc, and iron, as well as being a good source of vitamin A, niacin, and pantothenic acid. Cinnamon is also full of volatile oils, and a unique source of the compound cinnamaldehyde, which has a broad range of medical benefits.

Turmeric. Another spice popular in Indian cuisine, turmeric is perhaps most famous for its brilliant color. Curcumin, the polyphenoic compound that gives turmeric that unique color, also has many incredible health benefits, as an anti-oxidant, anti-amyloid, and an anti-inflammatory. Turmeric is full of vitamins, and is exceptionally rich in pyridoxine (vitamin B6), along with vitamin C, choline, niacin, and riboflavin. And turmeric is rich in minerals including calcium, potassium, manganese, copper, zinc, and magnesium. It also is one of the most powerful antioxidants among herbs and spices.

Garlic. Garlic needs no introduction, but may be worth another look for its incredible nutrition. Garlic is an incredibly rich source of potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium, and is also an excellent source of selenium. It is rich in antioxidants like beta carotene and zeaxanthin, and is a good source of vitamin C. When crushed, garlic's organic compounds undergo an enzymatic reaction and are converted to allicin. Allicin is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, and has been studied for its ability to lower cholesterol, ease high blood pressure, and even prevent the common cold.

Rosemary. Rosemary is an ancient herb, and has been associated with memory improvement since Roman times. Interestingly, this piece of folklore appears to be borne out in modern research, as one of its compounds (1,8-cineole) actually boosts brain activity and memory. Rosemary is also rich in vitamins and b-complex vitamins, and is an exceptional source of folate. Just a few leaves of rosemary a day are sufficient to provide your USRDA of vitamin A, and it is loaded with other antioxidants as well. And rosemary is an excellent source of minerals, particularly iron. Rosemary has many beneficial volatile essential oils, many of which are more potent in the fresh herb than in dried.

How to Spice it Up

If you are looking for ways to regularly incorporate more herbs and spices into your diet, here are some easy tips:

  • Start a kitchen garden. If you have a yard, terrace, or even a sunny windowsill, it's easy to start your small herb garden. Growing your own herbs means that you always have a free, fresh, organic supply of herbs and spices, and may make it easier to remember to incorporate them into your meals.
  • Go global. Whether you want to experiment with new cuisines in your own kitchen, or experience your local restaurant scene, try to adventure outside of your comfort zone and eat foods from around the world. Exploring new flavors, ingredients, and combinations will inspire new uses of herbs and spices.
  • Garnish your meals. A sprinkle of cinnamon, chives, or sprig of parsley on the plate not only makes your food more beautiful and appetizing, but also easily incorporates more vitamins, flavinoids, and trace minerals into every meal. No plate is really complete without a pretty little garnish.

Generally speaking, while many of these compounds and nutrients are available in supplement form, herbs and spices are more effective when consumed whole, in their natural state. It is believed that there may be synergistic reactions when these vitamins, minerals, oils, and compounds are consumed together in an herb, rather than when they are isolated and consumed as a supplement. So, when possible, use whole herbs and spices, fresh and dried, cooked and raw, to gain the most benefits from these incredible ingredients.

One of the best things about cooking with herbs and spices is that they add a ton of nutrition and flavor to foods, with few or no calories at all. For those who are looking to stay slim, herbs and spices make every meal more nutritionally dense without adding any significant calories. Some herbs, in fact, like cinnamon, turmeric, capsaicin, cloves, and others, are even shown to help speed metabolism and balance blood sugar, which can help maintain a healthy weight.

In other words, herbs and spices are an excellent way to ensure that your diet is complete and well-rounded, with all the vitamins, trace minerals, and important compounds your body needs. Fortunately, using them to complete your diet is simple, inexpensive, and delicious, so treat yourself to these fantastic flavors as much as possible.

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