“Spice” originates from the Latin word, “species”, which means a commodity of special distinction or value. The use of spices and herbs is an integral part of traditional cuisines & medicines all over the world. They have been used not only to enhance the organoleptic properties of food, but also for their beneficial effects on human health.
Spices & herbs are harvested from different parts of the plant. For example, spices can come from the root (ginger, turmeric), fruits/berries (cloves, chillies, black pepper), flowers (saffron), bark (cinnamon), and seeds (cumin, fennel) that contain volatile oils or aromatic scents and flavours. Herbs are usually obtained from leaves of the plant, for example, basil, sage, oregano, parsley etc.
Who enjoys the most?
Given the widespread use of herbs & spices and their known (and potential) health benefits, the consumption patterns of herbs and spices across the globe varies considerably. The average dietary intake of common spices varies significantly across the globe: *
Europeans consume an estimated at 0.5 g/person per day
Australians and New Zealanders consume between 1.3–1.9 g/day
Residents of Africa consume 1.8 g/day
Moderate consumers of herbs and spices are found in the Middle East and Eastern Asia with daily consumption of 2.6 and 3.1 g/person, respectively
The highest consumers of herbs and spices are found in India, South Africa, and Latin America with an average of 4.4 g/day
The intake of herbs and spices has been increasing in Northern Europe and North America mainly due to changing food habits and a growing mix of different ethnicities.
What else can herbs & spices do?
Over the last few decades successful research has proven the strong antioxidant, anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, and immune modulatory properties of herbs & spices. Furthermore, their flavouring & aromatic properties contribute to a reduction in salt consumption, thus leading to cardiovascular health benefits. Today we know that spices not only enhance the flavour, aroma, and colour of food & beverages, but they can also protect people from acute and chronic diseases. Even though in terms of weight, spices and herbs contribute little to the dinner plate, nonetheless, they are important contributors to antioxidant intake.
Clove, cinnamon, allspice, dried oregano, and dried thyme are the best sources of antioxidants.
The antimicrobial properties of herbs and spices is mainly due to their unique volatile oils and oleoresins. The essential oils found in thyme, oregano, mint, cinnamon, and cloves possess strong antibacterial properties against several food-borne bacteria and fungi.
Turmeric, ginger, cayenne, black pepper, rosemary, sage have strong anti-inflammatory properties.
Seed spices like coriander, fennel, cumin are strongly carminative, stomachic & digestive stimulants.
Herbs & Spices can do more!
Spices & herbs play a key role in Āyurvedic medicine & nutrition. As per Āyurveda, the foundation of good health is good digestion! Good digestion results from good enzyme function so that the food eaten is correctly transformed into a nutritive juice to be absorbed by the body. This is where the spices play a key role because they assist the digestion by stimulating the liver to induce higher secretion of bile acids that are vital for fat digestion and absorption, and by stimulating enzyme activities that are responsible for digestion.**
It is crucial to understand the principle behind the use of spices. This principle can be applied to any kind of cuisine –Mexican, French, Italian, American etc… Using herbs & spices according to the quality of food provides enzymes with additional support & improves digestive capacity. A step further would be to adapt the food to the Āyurvedic constitution of the person via the addition of specific spices. Specifically, this would mean that the spices are used to adjust the attributes of food to the individual eating them. For example, using black pepper on cheese to help counteract its moist, heavy, dense attributes that will increase Kapha! This is called antidoting in Ayurveda. This is called antidoting in Ayurveda.
** Animal studies have shown that many spices induce higher secretion of bile acids which play a vital role in fat digestion and absorption.