To give a bit of history, the spice trade began in the Middle East and South Asia roughly 4000 years ago. In its day, the spice trade was the world’s biggest industry: it established and destroyed empires, led to the discovery of new continents, and in many ways helped lay the foundation for the modern world. The earliest written records of spices come from ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Indian cultures. The Ebers Papyrus from Early Egyptians that dates from 1550 BCdescribes some eight hundred different medicinal remedies and numerous medicinal procedures. Today, PubMed is replete with studies supporting the health benefits of spices, and the timing couldn’t be more perfect. Spices are making a resurgence as part of the answer to the plethora of ailments that compromise our health and well-being. Spices have been documented to have anti- bacterial, anti-viral, anti-microbial, antioxidant, anti- inflammatory, and even anti- cancerous properties. Certain spices lower blood glucose levels and triglyceride levels. Others have been touted as beneficial for their hormone modulating properties.
One of the popular spices getting a lot of press is turmeric. Its active ingredient is curcumin and it has been hailed as a ‘cure all’ as it addresses many troublesome symptoms. It has potent anti- inflammatory, anti- oxidant, and anti- cancer properties. It is used for pain management, skin health, and has cognitive benefits including depression as well. Another spice garnering a lot of attention is cayenne pepper. It contains the active compound capsicum and exhibits anti- inflammatory and anti- viral properties; promotes weight loss and is a digestive aid. Other popular spices include ginger, garlic, cinnamon, black pepper and cumin.
So why aren’t more people using spices in their meal prep?? Well, I think first of all we aren’t cooking at home as often! When we do decide to cook, in North America, we don’t expand our palettes beyond salt and pepper. My parents are Jamaican born, and I grew up watching my mother, and other Jamaican family and friends spice the crap out of their meat- curry, salt, black pepper, ginger, garlic, thyme, onion, pimento, just to name a few. The meals were always flavorful. The other reason is lack of knowledge about the power of spices and their health benefits to the body. I try and incorporate spices as much as possible into the foods I prepare. Cinnamon in oatmeal, Himalayan salt and dulse flakes on avocado; nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon when baking sweet treats; turmeric cayenne pepper, cumin, paprika, garlic, and black pepper in soups, stirfry and any meal with beans/legumes. The picture above highlighted some of the spices I used in a vegan chili. Spices have taken on more importance since we switched to a mainly plant- based diet. Vegetables have never tasted so good!
Not all spices are created equal and there are certain things to look for when purchasing spices. First of all, when possible, organic, or spices grown without the use of chemicals is best. Search for the words “non- irradiated’ on the spice label. If you don’t see it, you can always call the company to double check. Food irradiation is the treatment of food with a type of radiation energy known as ionizing radiation. Most commercial spices are irradiated as a health precaution. According to Health Canada, irradiation reduces microbial load on spices and dehydrated seasoning preparations, meaning it destroys bacteria, molds and yeast which cause food to spoil. Irradiation has its drawbacks, however. The main concern is that it damages the quality of the food. Loss of vitamins and minerals are quite common, while the process of irradiation increases free radicals and other potential carcinogens. Put another way, any health benefit from the spice is virtually wiped out AND puts the individual at risk for exposure to toxins. Lastly, you want to have another look on the product label to ensure there are no preservatives, oils, anti- caking agents and suspect ingredients like ‘spices’- I kid you not! Why is ‘spices’ listed as an ingredient on a spice blend? What exactly is ‘spices?’ Sometimes it can be hidden MSG on a spice blend label stating that there is ‘No- MSG.’ Again, when in doubt call the company and speak with someone knowledgeable who will be able to tell you EXACTLY what is in their product. Some companies will state that their ‘spices’ blend is proprietary a.k.a. trade secret, and may not disclose all ingredients. It is then on you as the consumer to determine if the benefits of purchasing that product outweighs the potential risk.
I purchase my spices from several sources. Frontier Brand was my go- to when I first learned about the importance of consuming non- irradiated spices. Since then, I have purchased spices from Homesense (go figure), Epicure, and the Sustainable Market https://sustainablemarket.ca/. On occasion my parents will bring back spices from their travels to Jamaica.
There is no time like the present to spice up your life!