Herbs and Spices: How Food Affects Health

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Using herbs, spices, and other seasonings will help flavor your food without adding extra sodium, calories, sugar, or fat.

There are many alternatives to salt when it comes to flavoring your food. I am a big fan of experimenting with herbs, unsalted seasonings, and spices. Aside from boosting flavor, many of these extras possess antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties that may help contribute to heart health, beautiful skin and hair, and help reduce your risk of osteoporosis, arthritis, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cataracts, and macular degeneration — all this without adding extra sodium, calories, sugar, or fat to your food.

Try using nutrient-packed fresh and dried herbs, unsalted seasoning blends, garlic powder, and ginger to help spruce up dressings, sauces, salads, soups, pasta dishes, vegetables, meat, and fish. And be liberal with spices: Hot and spicy flavors from chili peppers, cayenne, curry, cumin, and coriander encourage slower eating, which can help you stay on track with your weight-loss goals. (Just keep in mind that some people with IBS are sensitive to spicy foods and may experience discomfort after eating them.) In addition, baking spices, like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom, are a terrific, calorie-free way to lend sweetness to breakfast foods and desserts without pouring on the sugar.


Allspice | Basil | Bay Leaves | Black Pepper | Cardamom | Chili Powder | Cilantro | Cinnamon | Coriander | Cumin | Dill | Garlic Powder | Ginger | Hot Red Pepper Flakes | Mint | Nutmeg | Onion Powder | Oregano | Paprika | Parsley | Rosemary | Sage | Salt | Salt Substitute | Thyme | Turmeric | Yellow Curry Powder

 

Allspice
Despite its name, allspice is not a mixture of different spices. Rather, it is its own spice and has the flavor of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. It is commonly used in Caribbean and Latin American cooking and is one of the key ingredients in jerk seasoning and mole sauces.

 

Basil
Basil, a fragrant green herb commonly used in Italian cooking, comes in many varieties, including sweet basil, Thai basil, and lemon basil. Fresh basil is available during the summer, but you can get dried basil all year round. When cooking with fresh basil, it's best to add it at the end of cooking so it doesn't lose its vibrant green color and delicious flavor. Like other herbs, basil adds flavor to food without adding sodium, calories, and fat.

 

Bay Leaves
Bay leaves are an herb that can be found fresh or dried and are most often used in cooking to flavor soups, stews, and other slow-cooking dishes. Dried bay leaves are most commonly used whole and have a longer shelf life and more developed flavor than fresh ones. However, be sure to remove the leaves before serving — the whole dried leaves are not meant to be eaten. Like other herbs, bay leaves add a lot of flavor without the addition of salt.

 

Black Pepper
Black pepper should be a staple in your spice rack. You may think of pepper as salt’s other half, but pepper can stand alone, especially if you have or are at risk for high blood pressure and need to limit your sodium intake. To get the best flavor, freshly grind peppercorns right before using, since pepper begins to lose its pungent taste and aroma once it is ground.

 

Cardamom
Cardamom is a spice with a strong fragrance and taste, commonly used in Indian cooking. You can buy cardamom in pods, crushed, or ground — but, heads-up, it’s a little on the expensive side. Like other spices, cardamom is a great way to flavor food without adding sodium, calories, or fat.

 

Chili Powder
Chili powder is typically a mixture of spices, often including chili pepper, cumin, oregano, and garlic. The heat level can range from mild to hot depending upon what types of peppers are used. Some brands of chili powder also contain salt, so read labels carefully if you have type 2 diabetes.

 

Coriander
Coriander is the seed of the cilantro plant, although it has a very different flavor than cilantro. It is sold whole and ground and commonly used in curries, meat and seafood dishes, and stews. Like other spices, coriander adds flavor to food without adding sodium, calories, or fat.

 

Cumin
Cumin, a spice that can be found as whole seeds or ground, is popular in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking. Like other spices, cumin adds a lot of flavor to recipes without adding sodium, calories, and fat.

 

Dill
Dill is an herb with fernlike leaves that is used to add flavor to many foods, including soups, dips, and, of course, pickles. Fresh dill has a much more intense flavor than its dried counterpart.

 

Garlic Powder
While it doesn't have the exact same flavor as garlic, garlic powder comes from dehydrated garlic cloves and lasts longer than fresh garlic. It also goes a long way in cooking — 1/8 teaspoon of garlic powder is equivalent to one clove of fresh garlic. Like other spices, garlic powder is a good substitute for salt when adding flavor to food. Just make sure not to confuse it with garlic salt, which is high in sodium and can increase the risk of high blood pressure.

 

Ginger
Ginger is a spice that has been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect in the body, which can help prevent and manage arthritis. Some studies have also shown ginger to be an effective solution for nausea. Ginger can be found fresh in the produce section and ground, and it is commonly used in Asian cooking and baked goods. Ground ginger has a very different flavor than fresh ginger and is typically not a good substitute for fresh in recipes.

 

Hot Red Pepper Flakes
Red pepper flakes, also known as crushed red pepper, are a spice made from hot dried red peppers. They are commonly found on tables in pizza parlors, but can also be added in cooking to give your food a "kick." Like other spices, red pepper flakes add flavor to food without adding sodium, calories, and fat. IBS sufferers take note: Some people with IBS are sensitive to spicy foods and experience discomfort after eating them, so be careful when using hot red pepper flakes.

 

Mint
Mint is an herb that comes in many varieties (e.g., peppermint, spearmint) and is best used in fresh form. Mint leaves are often added to beverages, lamb dishes, and Middle Eastern dishes and used as garnish for desserts. Adding crushed fresh mint leaves to unsweetened iced tea or water is a terrific way to create a delicious, refreshing drink with no added calories or sugar. Some people also find mint to be soothing to the stomach.

 

Nutmeg
Nutmeg is a spice that is often used as an ingredient in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine, as well as baked goods and desserts. When used to season healthy recipes, nutmeg is a great way to add flavor without adding sodium, calories, or fat.

 

Onion Powder
Onion powder is a spice made from ground dehydrated onions. It isn't as pungent or sharp as fresh onions, but it's a great way to add flavor without adding salt and is a big time-saver in the kitchen. Just make sure not to confuse onion powder with onion salt, which is high in sodium and can increase the risk of high blood pressure.

 

Oregano
Oregano is an herb often used in Mediterranean and Latin American cooking and can be found fresh and dried. Dried oregano tends to be more pungent than fresh because it is more concentrated. Like other herbs, oregano adds flavor to food without adding sodium, calories, and fat.

 

Paprika
Paprika is a spice made from dried and ground red peppers. It can range from sweet and mild to spicy and hot, and is used in cooking to add flavor and color to dishes. Like other spices, paprika adds flavor to food without adding sodium, calories, and fat. IBS sufferers take note: Some people with IBS are sensitive to spicy foods and experience discomfort after eating them, so be careful how much and what type of paprika you use.

 

Parsley
Parsley is a common green leafy culinary herb. There are two types of parsley — flat leaf, which is typically used for cooking, and curly leaf, which is most often used for garnish. Like other herbs, it is great to use parsley to add flavor to recipes without adding sodium, calories, and fat.

 

Rosemary
Rosemary is a fragrant herb with needle-like leaves, commonly used in Mediterranean cooking. It can be found fresh and dried, and like other herbs, it is a great way to add flavor to your food without adding sodium, calories, and fat.

 

Sage
Sage is an herb with a soft, fuzzy grayish-green leaf and a sweet, yet savory flavor. Fresh or dried sage is great in tomato sauce, soups and stews, and paired with chicken, pork, and fish. Like other herbs, sage adds flavor to food without adding sodium, calories, and fat.

 

Salt
Salt is a seasoning that increases blood pressure in people who are salt sensitive. Although sodium (which is 40 percent of salt) is necessary for the body to function, too much draws excess fluid into the blood, which raises blood pressure and increases bloating and water retention (worsening PMS symptoms). Most adults are advised to limit their sodium intake to less than 1,500 mg per day. Note that some types of salt, such as kosher salt, have coarser grains than table salt, which means that a teaspoon of the coarser salt will contain less sodium than a teaspoon of fine table salt.

 

Salt Substitute
If you have high blood pressure and need to be on a sodium-controlled diet, salt substitutescan be a great tool to help you adjust to a low-salt lifestyle. Some salt substitutes use potassium chloride (instead of sodium chloride found in regular salt), which tastes similar to table salt but should not be used if you have kidney problems or are taking certain medications. It is always best to check with your doctor before using these types of salt substitutes.

 

Thyme
Thyme is a fragrant herb with very small, delicate leaves and a lemony flavor. It is great in egg, bean, chicken, and vegetable dishes as well as stews and soups, and it can be found fresh and dried. Like other herbs, thyme adds flavor to your food without adding sodium, calories, and fat.

 

Turmeric
Turmeric, sometimes called curcumin, is a mustard-yellow spice from Asia with anti-inflammatory properties that may help prevent and treat arthritis and protect against memory loss. Turmeric is also used as a natural dye, so use caution when handling it — it can discolor clothes, hands, and surfaces. Turmeric is a staple in curry powder and often used when preparing curry.

 

Yellow Curry Powder
The main ingredient in yellow curry powder is turmeric, a spice with anti-inflammatory properties that may help prevent arthritis and protect against memory loss. In addition to being a main ingredient in curry sauces, yellow curry powder also adds interesting flavor to chicken and egg dishes.