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The Healing Powers of Herbs and Spices

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD

Most people think about healthy foods and beverages as their ticket to a healthy diet. But experts say the power of health and wellness goes beyond whole foods and includes herbs and spices.

Beyond eating a diet according to the government's MyPlateOpens a new window, which is chock full of fruits, vegetables, beans, lean protein, whole grains, healthy fats and low-fat dairy, add spices to your favorite dishes. Herbs and spices can boost the nutritional quality of your diet.

Not only do herbs and spices provide flavor for very few calories, they also contain disease-fighting antioxidants. Stock your spice rack or kitchen with these five spices to help boost the health of your family meals.

Five Easy Pieces

These five stand-out spices are commonly found in most kitchens and have been shown to offer health benefits. Many other herbs and spices also have medicinal properties, but these five are among the best:


Health Benefit: may help reduce inflammation at the cellular level.

Tumeric, a member of the ginger family, contains the bright yellow compound curcumin. This ingredient is rich in antioxidants that may protect and improve the health of all organs in the body. The antioxidants prevent oxidation and inflammation that may help prevent chronic diseases.

Turmeric, of course, is a key ingredient of curry, a staple of Indian cuisine.


  • Spice up your curry with turmeric.
  • Sprinkle turmeric in a pan to toast before sautéing veggies.
  • Spice up and add color to lentils, fish dishes and rice with turmeric.
  • Blend it with butter or trans fat-free margarine and to add flavor to cooked vegetables.
  • Put zest into chicken soup, stews or chili by adding a teaspoon of turmeric.


Health Benefit: may help improve digestion.

Coriander comes from the coriander seeds of the cilantro plant. Oils within the seeds contain antioxidants that may help relax digestive muscles and reduce discomfort from digestion problems.


  • Combine coriander seeds with peppercorns in your peppermill grinder.
  • Grind coriander seeds with a mortar and pestle or an electric spice grinder.
  • Add whole seeds to soups, stews, fish, casseroles, marinades and vinaigrettes.
  • Combine coriander, garlic, butter and paprika for a Moroccan rub on meats.
  • Warm milk, honey, coriander and cinnamon for a delicious beverage.
  • Add Middle Eastern flavor to pancakes and waffles by adding ground coriander.

Fennel Seed

Health Benefit: may help reduce menstrual cramps.

Fennel is both an herb and a spice that gives licorice and anise their distinctive taste. Fennel seeds contain phytochemicals, including phytoestrogen-like compounds that may help reduce menstrual cramps in women. It may even help calm colic babies.


  • Buy whole fennel seeds that will keep for up to three years and grind as needed.
  • Use fennel seeds liberally with foods of the Mediterranean diets such as tomatoes, olive oil, basil and seafood.
  • Add fennel seeds to Italian dishes, fruit salads and egg dishes.
  • Toasting fennel seeds will bring out the flavor before adding to foods.
  • Combine fennel with thyme and oregano in marinades for vegetables and seafood.


Health Benefit: may help calm nausea.

Ginger is well known for its ability to quell a quesy stomach, especially from motion sickness or morning sickness.


  • Grate fresh ginger over veggies or noodles.
  • Toss sliced, chopped or dried ginger into marinades or stir fry dishes.
  • Rub meat with ginger for added flavor and tenderness.
  • Add a piece of fresh ginger to your favorite tea.
  • Sprinkle ginger and brown sugar on roasted squash or sweet potatoes.
  • Fresh ginger can be shredded, minced, sliced or grated and does not need to be peeled.
  • Substitute fresh ginger for dried using a 6:1 ratio of fresh: dried.


Health Benefit: may help control blood sugars and also may help prevent and treat heart disease.

Cinnamon contains polyphenols, natural substances that work similar to insulin in the body and may help control blood sugar levels, especially in people at risk for diabetes and heart disease. Studies show people who take ¼ to ½ teaspoon of cinnamon twice a day may help lower glucose, cholesterol and triglyceride levels up to 30 percent.


  • Use whole cinnamon whenever possible as the ground variety can fade after a few months.
  • Sprinkle cinnamon on apples, applesauce, bananas, melons, oranges and sweet potatoes.
  • Combine equal parts of cinnamon with cardamom and black pepper for a spice rub on meats.
  • Add a stick of cinnamon to soups, stews and iced tea.
  • Use cinnamon in desserts such as rice pudding, pies and cakes.
  • Mix cinnamon with hot coffee.
  • Top whole grain cereal or bread with cinnamon and little sugar.


  • Grotto, David. 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life, 2007, Bantam Books.
  • Aggarwal, Bharat and Yost, Debra. Healing Spices: How to Use 50 Everyday and Exotic Spices to Boost Health and Beat Disease, 2011, Sterling Books.

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