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Using spices and herbs

Kolasa, Kathy

Wednesday, January 9, 2019


Q: I don’t think my mom ever used anything other than salt, pepper, and cinnamon to flavor food. She said it was silly and expensive to a container and then use only ¼ teaspoon. I am intrigued by the possibility that some herbs might be helpful in controlling inflammation. Can you tell us more about the benefits of using spices and herbs in food? MG, Greenville.

A: I know lots of folks who skip adding a ¼ teaspoon of this or that spice and just stick to salt and pepper and they are missing out on a world of flavors as well as some potential health benefits. Meredith Nelson, an ECU senior dietetic student wanted to share some thoughts with you about the health claims for spices and herbs. Here is what she wants you to know.

“Garlic can relieve symptoms of the common cold!” “Cinnamon can boost your metabolism!”

From soothing a sore throat to curing cancer, claims that herbs and spices can be used for medicinal purposes, a part of traditional medicine, dates over 60,000 years ago. Remedies have been passed down for generations, and nowadays, you can find many spices in pill-form at the local pharmacy. News outlets are quick to headline claims that certain herbs and spices can, for example, lower blood pressure, help with weight loss, or relieve a headache. Unfortunately, in most cases, the research doesn’t provide strong evidence to fully support the claim in question. Even if there is evidence of healing properties in an herb or spice, the experts don’t usually know the frequency or dosage necessary for the desired effect.

But, what do we know for certain?

Spices add flavor to foods and can make your meal more appetizing. If you avoid lean meat or certain vegetables because they lack flavor, try spicing up your foods. Using spices as an alternative to other flavorings, like barbecue sauce filled with added sugar and creamy dressings filled with fat, also can be beneficial to your health. By swapping unhealthy sauces for spices, you are eliminating the extra calories, sugar, sodium, and fat from your meal. If you are trying to reduce the sugar in your diet, try swapping a sweet tasting spice like ginger, cinnamon, or nutmeg for sugar. If you are limiting sodium, trade salt for savory flavors like garlic powder or onion powder. When purchasing spices, be sure to check the ingredient label as manufacturers sometimes add sugar or sodium. When examining the label, the ingredients are listed in order of prevalence by weight, from most to least, in the food product. If a seasoning has sugar listed first on the ingredients label, then that product is composed of primarily sugar and isn’t likely to be a healthy option.

You can learn more about health claims you hear or see about herbs and spices at MedlinePlus.gov, a database produced by the US National Library of Medicine. It is a reliable source that addresses health claims made for many herbs and spices. On the MedlinePlus.gov homepage, click the “Drugs & Supplements” tab at the top. There, you can browse supplements alphabetically. Click the supplement’s name to view information about the supplement’s effectiveness towards certain ailments, if a recommended dosage is known, and the safety of the herb or spice. Talk with your physician before using an herb or spice for medicinal purposes especially if you are taking other medications that could become more or less effective if taken along with certain herbs.

When cooking with herbs and spices, the most delicious meals often result from using a blend of spices. For example, a taco seasoning consists of chili powder, garlic powder, onion powder, red pepper flakes, oregano, paprika, and cumin. Buying seven different spices for one meal instead of one can of taco sauce can seem excessive and financially unrealistic, however, one container of a spice goes a long way. You only need to use a small amount of each spice per meal to add a whole lot of flavor. One standard, 2-ounce container should last for countless meals. The taco seasoning above calls for 1 teaspoon of each seasoning, and a 2-ounce container contains 21 teaspoons, so you could make tacos 21 times. From those seven taco seasoning spices, you can mix and match seasonings to create a new meal and flavor. For example, paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, and chili powder create a barbecue-like spice rub for grilled chicken.

If you’re still not convinced to invest in spices, here’s more good news. Many discount grocery stores have a wide selection of herbs and spices for only about one dollar or less. Within Greenville, I, personally, have seen dried herbs and spices at these prices at Dollar Tree and Walmart. During my most recent Dollar Tree visit, I noticed garlic powder, dried oregano, cayenne pepper, red pepper flakes, onion powder, paprika, Italian seasoning, and cinnamon – just to name a few! When shopping at discount stores, be cautious of the expiration date of items. Spices are safe to use past expiration, but they likely will have lost some flavor. So, next time you find yourself reaching in your pantry for a bottle of barbecue sauce, try experimenting with your favorite herbs and spices instead!


Professor emeritus Kathy Kolasa, a registered dietitian, nutritionist and Ph.D., is an Affiliate Professor in the Brody School of Medicine at ECU. Contact her at kolasaka@ecu.edu.


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