Life & Style | Health

Treasure in your spice rack

The everyday ingredients with a host of health benefits

  • By Mahmood Saberi, Senior Reporter
  • Published: 07:00 August 22, 2013
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit:
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Feel a cold coming on? Head for the kitchen. Feeling a bit bilious? Head for the kitchen. Queasy stomach? Yes, you got the point. Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician knew what he was talking about when he said, “Let food be thy medicine.” And the best place for that medicine is, surprisingly, on your kitchen spice rack.

The spice rack is a veritable medicine chest. From garlic to cloves to cardomom to cinnamon and dozens of other spices, it offers exquisite flavours and effective health boosts. Love garlic in your pasta? You may be sold on its flavour and taste but there’s more to it than that. Garlic has many health benefits such as helping in lowering cholesterol and even high blood pressure. Do you liberally use turmeric in your curry dishes for its rich colour? Turmeric has more to offer than a deep yellow lustre to food — it is one of the best anti-inflammatory agents and can sooth an upset stomach. Cardamom, added to desserts, puddings and sweet dishes not only lends the most amazing flavour but is also a good mouth freshener but helps you control your mood swings?

Adding ginger to the diet every day helps 
prevent blocked blood vessels, reduces blood pressure, blood sugar and blood cholesterol levels.

Brewing half a teaspoon of dried basil leaves with herbal teas three times a week can be both health-promoting and stress-relieving.

Juliot Vinolia, clinical dietician and consultant nutritionist, iCare Clinics, refamiliarises you with the spice rack and reveals the many amazing curative properties they possess. She not only tells you how each spice is good for you, but also how much of it you can ingest and what’s the best way to have it.

Here are 15 spices and herbs to re-discover.

Fact Box

1) Ginger

Qualities: Warming, pungent.

Benefits: Anti- emetic, anti-bloating. Reduces nausea and vomiting. Anti- inflammatory, analgesic, decongestant. 
Has protective effect against chronic medical conditions. Good for motion sickness, morning sickness, post-operative nausea and vomiting rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, gout, localised body pain, joint ache and menstrual pain, respiratory disorders, flu, cold and sore throat. heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, infection, fatty liver, cancer. Currently, there are several ongoing researches on ginger’s effect on health.

How much to eat? Adding ginger to the diet every day helps prevent blood vessel blocks, reduce blood pressure, blood sugar and blood cholesterol levels. 
Blend 1 teaspoon (5 grams) of ginger powder either with warm water or chamomile tea or lemonade or simply make ginger ale from 2 cubes of fresh ginger root, When travelling you can follow grandma’s tip of carrying with you ginger candies or cookies and enjoy them as snacks.Ginger tea and ginger syrup (1/2 tsp) are better alternatives to anti-emetic pharmaceutical preparations which could have side effects. Ginger syrup is also available in combination with amla (gooseberry) syrup, a good source of Vitamin C, vital for iron absorption. 
It has been clinically proven that taking 1gm of ginger one hour prior to surgery reduced nausea and vomiting by 38 percent post surgery. 
Intake of ginger extract 1/2 tsp with lemonade, thrice a day and application of ginger oil in the localised area has been found to reduce pain and inflammation. Boiling 2 tsp of freshly grated ginger into herbal teas, 4 times a day can be of a great relief for flu and cold.
To gain this protective effect, add 1 tsp of ginger paste to your dishes. Prepare a concoction of ginger ale, lemon juice, green tea and honey making upto 1 liter and enjoy it now and then in a day.

Who should not eat it?
Children below 2 years should not be given ginger. Older children and teenagers can have 2 teaspoons of fresh ginger extract and healthy adults can increase up to 3 teaspoons in a day. Not recommended for those with gastritis, food poisoning, acidity, ulcers, gastritis and other inflammatory diseases of the digestive tract. Avoid taking ginger with medicines. 
According to the National Institute of Health, ginger capsules and other ginger extract products are to be avoided by pregnant mothers. Commercial preparations of ginger may contain more than 250 mgs of the ginger extract which can affect fetal hormonal levels. Where as having 1 teaspoon of dried ginger grated into lemon tea is safe during pregnancy. Dried ginger is less pungent than fresh ones.
Ginger capsules should be avoided by women with prolonged menstrual flow due to it’s anti-coagulant effect.

To be avoided by those with hyperacidity and ulcers. 
Fresh or dried ginger is considered safe when had in small amounts. It is a must to consult your physician before starting ginger supplements. Ginger can interact with medicines.

Raw or Cooked? What changes can take place when cooked?
Best had in raw form. Complete health benefit is obtained only from fresh ginger root compared to other forms. Cooking ginger on high temperatures can partially denature the good oils in it. For those with a sensitive digestive tract, having ginger ale or cooking ginger on low temperatures can make it less pungent and aid a soothing effect.

2) Garlic

Qualities: Warming, pungent.

Benefits: Anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungal, cholesterol lowering, blood pressure lowering, immune enhancing and analgesic effect.

Good for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, infection, fatty liver.

Garlic contains allicin, ajoene, diallyl sulphide, thiacremomone that contribute to these health promoting benefits. Along with these components, garlic also contains selenium and germanium potential anti-oxidants. One milligram of allicin has the same potency of 15 standard units of penicillin. Recent researches have shown that the anti-inflammatory property of garlic prevent activation of the precursor of fat cells. Thus prevents the accumulation of fat and cellulite.

How much to eat?

Tossing 2 to 4 fresh garlic pods in extra virgin olive oil or canola oil can render its complete goodness and can be had on a daily basis. Garlic goes good with ginger when cooking and has its own distinctive flavour. Garlic supplements add a protective effect on blood parameters.

Who should not eat it?

Avoid taking garlic with medicines to avoid interactions. Should always be taken under medical supervision.

Raw garlic is possibly unsafe for children. Raw garlic can irritate the lining of the digestive tract. Garlic supplements are not recommended if your having bleeding disorders, IBS, and sensitive digestive tract. Avoid taking garlic products two weeks prior to surgery if you have bleeding and blood clotting issues. Garlic in food preparations is considerably safe. Garlic supplements may also have mild side effects of bloating, dizziness, head ache and body odour.

Raw or cooked? What changes can take place when cooked?

Best to consume in cooked form. Unlike ginger, cooking garlic destroys its pungent nature and makes it suitable for the digestive tract. Avoid taking garlic with medicines to avoid interactions. Fresh garlic has more active ingredients than the dried form.

3) Turmeric

Qualities: Bitter, Pungent, Astringent and Warming.

Benefits: Anti-bacterial, anti-septic, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and analgesic effect. Available as capsules, and fluid extract.

Good for stomach upset, Arthritis, Urinary tract infections, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Cystic fibrosis, other Inflammatory diseases and for loss of appetite.

It’s phenolic components help slow cancer progression. Curcumin, its antioxidant is an effect anti-inflammatory agent.

How much to eat?

Taking 1/2 teaspoon of turmeric powder with 3 tablespoons of fresh yoghurt, thrice a day makes a perfect remedy for stomach upset, food poisoning and urinary tract infection. Turmeric provides anti-bacterial effect and yoghurt a probiotic, helps replenish good bacteria in the colon. Curcumin supplements and turmeric extract preparations can be helpful to alleviate painful symptoms of arthritis. Turmeric is a natural colouring agent and adding it to food can add long term health benefit. Turmeric powder can also be used to marinate fish and meat as it has anti- bacterial properties. One teaspoon of turmeric powder per day is considered beneficially healthy and safe.

Who should not eat it?

Taking turmeric with blood clotting medications might increase the chances of bruising and bleeding. Discuss with your physician before taking turmeric supplements if you are already taking antacids and diabetic drugs.

Raw or Cooked? What changes take place when cooked?

Some studies have shown that the absorption of curcumin in turmeric powder has be maximized by 1000 times when taken along with black pepper and olive oil.

4) Cloves

Qualities: Warming

Benefits: Analgesic, anti-emetic, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti- flatulent and anti-oxidant effect. Also available as clove oil. Good for Tooth ache, inflammation in gum, water retention and electrolyte imbalance. Cloves are an excellent source of manganese. Eugenol is the volatile oil, that functions as an anti-inflammatory agent. Kaempferol and rhamnetin are the flavanoids that give anti- inflammatory effect.

How much to eat?

Children should not be given clove oil by mouth. Cloves can be plain roasted in a pan and made into powder using a coffee grinder. Half a teaspoon of this clove powder can be added to cooking on a daily basis. Clove is safe when taken in food amounts. Taking 2 to 3 cloves in food preparations can be beneficial to health.

Who should not eat it?

Clove slows blood clotting and there is a high concern that it might cause bleeding during and after surgery. It is recommended to stop taking cloves 2 weeks before surgery. Consumption of excess of cloves can cause digestive tract irritation and nervous system disorders. Cloves should be avoided by those with stomach ulcers, IBS, gastritis and colitis.

Raw or Cooked. What changes can take place when cooked?

Cloves are pungent in the raw form. Roasting destroys the pungent components. Sauteing cloves with other spices and herbs enhances the flavour of curries.

5) Cardamom

Qualities: Warming and Sweet ingredient

Benefits: Appetite stimulator, breath refreshner, anti-oxidant and anti-cancer and diuretic agent. Good for Constipation, Water retention, bad breath, IBS, flatulence, depression and premenstrual mood swings. Limonene and cineole, aromatic oils in cardamom renders the anti-oxidant effect. Having 3 grams of cardamom powder on daily basis has shown to reduce blood pressure among hypertensive patients newly diagnosed and not on medications. It is also shown that cardamom can help detox toxins released due to stress.

How much to eat?

There is still on-going research on the amount of cardamom that can potentially render long term health benefits. Adding a cardamom to your tea on daily basis can possibly be soothing to the digestive tract. Boiling one cardamom into a cup of herbal or green tea, thrice a day can help reduce blood pressure, regularise bowel movements and increase urination and reduce excess body fluids and toxins. Cardamom has also been found to enhance calcium absorption. Can also be used as a meat preservative due to its anti-microbial effect.

Who should not eat it?

Since cardamom is taken only in minimal amounts it has not been found to cause any side affects. Certain researches suggest avoiding regular intake of cardamom if your having gall stones and bleeding disorders. It can possibly cause allergic reactions for those with hives. Cardamom flavoured foods are considered totally safe for children and adults. We should always keep in mind that herbs are not always necessarily safe and should not be taken in large amounts.

Raw or Cooked? What changes can take place when cooked?

Ayurvedic studies suggest that cardamom can be beneficial when boiled with milk or tea. Makes a perfect kitchen cure agent in combination with fresh ginger.

6) Coriander Seeds (Also available as oil).

Qualities: Cooling, pungent and astringent)

Benefits: Anti-oxidant, blood sugar lowering, cholesterol lowering and diuretic effect. Good for Water retention, Urinary tract infection (UTI), high blood pressure, diabetes, insulin resistance, thyroid disease, nervous system disorders, haemorrhoids, piles and constipation. Improves insulin function, decreases the absorption of cholesterol in the body. It has been research proved that coriander seed powder can increase HDL levels (good cholesterol) and decrease LDL (bad cholesterol) and triglyceride levels by increasing bile in liver. Coriander leaves (cilantro) has also been proved to have anti-microbial agent and usually advised for flatulence and diarrhoea.

How much to eat?

Coriander seeds can be roasted, powdered and can be added into daily food preparations. Diabetics and healthy individuals can add one teaspoon of coriander seed powder to rotis, breads and food preparations. Soaking 3 tsp of coriander seeds overnight and drinking the water can render a cooling, laxative and detoxifying effect to the colon.

Who should not eat it?

Coriander seeds have no allergic reactions. People with history of Gall stones should avoid taking coriander oil and excess of coriander seeds. Adding coriander powder to our daily food preparations is safe and beneficial than its oil.

Raw or Cooked? What changes can take place when cooked?

Like other herbs excess of heat can destroy the antioxidants. Roasting helps release the oils and functional components making them easily available for absorption in the body. Good for water retention, dehydration and hypertension, best had by soaking and drinking the water. Coriander leaves (cilantro) are good source of anti-oxidants can be used for garnishing. Best had raw or into a tea or making a extract provides complete nutrition and health benefit.

7) Basil Leaves

(Saint Joseph’s Wort)

Benefits: Anti-oxidant, anti-cancer, anti-bacterial and anti-viral effect. Known stress buster. Recommended for Cancer, infection, flatulence and poor blood circulation. Basil leaves have flavonoids and Vitamin A and Iron. Also a good sources of calcium, potassium, magnesium and iron. Helps improve blood circulation and maintain electrolyte balance.

How much to eat?

Dried basil can be added to any dish. Can be stir-fried with vegetables or boiled as a part of a soup. Brewing half a teaspoon of dried basil leaves with herbal teas thrice a week can be health promoting and stress relieving.

Who should not eat it?

One animal study has shown that excess and regular intake of basil can trigger the cancer of the liver as it contains the chemical estragole. But no adverse effects have been shown in human trials.

Raw or Cooked? What changes can take place when cooked?

Stir-frying basil leaves along with vegetables or boiling it in soups or made into a pesto sauce can destroy the anti-nutritional factors but still provide the other health benefits.

8) Nutmeg

Qualities: Warming.

Benefits: Anti-inflammatory, anti -emetic, sedative, appetite stimulating and digestive tract protecting effect. Good as mood Enhancer and for PMS, Depression, Insomnia, Rheumatoid arthritis, digestive tract disturbances, flatulence and nausea. It is believed that it can improve colon problems and prevent cancer. It helps in the formation of serotonin, the feel good hormone. There is insufficient evidence on nutmeg’s impact on other chronic medical conditions.

How much to eat?

Kickstart your day by adding a pinch of nutmeg powder to your breakfast cereal. If PMS and Insomnia is bothering you can add a dash to a glass of warm milk before sleep. Nutmeg oil can be used to massage painful gums and relieve tooth ache.

Who should not eat it?

Eating more than one teaspoon of nutmeg powder has proven to cause hallucinations, nausea and dizziness. Though some studies state that nutmeg powder can cause miscarriages or birth defects, it is considered safe for a limit of 1/2 teaspoon occasionally in the food form. Nutmeg oil has the concentrate form of components that can affect the nervous system when taken in excess. It is better to consult your physic an if you are on other medications.

Raw or Cooked? What changes can take place when cooked?

Roasting and grinding nutmeg destroys the anti-health components but makes the flavonoids and polyphenols more available.

9) Paprika

Qualities: Warming.

Benefits: Anti- oxidant, anti-inflammatory and prevents metabolic syndrome. Good as a metabolism booster and for Rheumatoid arthritis and respiratory tract infections and nasal congestion. Excellent source of Vitamin C, hence prevents heart disease, diabetes, cancer and boosts the immune system. Several studies have shown that capsaicin in paprika can increase basal metabolism and support weight loss.

How much to eat?

Paprika is used as a colouring agent. It can used to season food dishes. Raw paprika can irritate the stomach.

Who should not it?

Not recommended for pregnant mothers and those with bleeding disorders, peptic ulcer, gastritis and hyperacidity. Capsaicin in paprika can irritate the gut’s mucosa. Some studies has shown that paprika can reduce the effect of certain medications.

Raw or Cooked? What changes can take place when cooked?

To avoid any stomach irritation, paprika can be roasted and a dash can be added in vegetables stir fried with olive oil. Olive oil reduces its pungent nature.

10) Saffron

Qualities: Sweet, Astringent and Cooling.

Benefits: Detoxifying, sooths the digestive tract and colon, good as an anti-depressant and anti-expectorant and for

Respiratory diseases, insomnia, asthma, PMS and Alzheimer’s Disease. Increases serotonin levels and reduces symptoms of depression. Good source of riboflavin, carotenoid and lycopenes.

How much to eat?

Taking a pinch of saffron with yoghurt has been proven to alleviate depression and menstrual discomfort.

Who should not eat it?

Having more than 1 tablespoon of saffron can be fatal. Saffron supplements are to be avoided for those with Bipolar disorder and other Psychological disturbances. Taking it in minimal amounts in the food form is considered safe.

Raw or Cooked? What changes can take place when cooked?

The goodness of saffron is obtained to the fullest when taken with a warm drink like lukewarm milk or other herbal teas. Cooking at high temperatures can destroy its beneficial components.

11) Cayenne (Red Chilli)

Qualities: Warming

What are its benefits?

Prevents clogging of arteries and prevents stroke. Good for hypertension. Capsaicin in cayenne renders the anti-oxidant effect. Reduces the production of inflammation causing enzymes in the body. Facilitates easy blood flow and strengthens the walls of arteries.

How much to eat?

Adding 1/4th teaspoon of cayenne powder to a cup of herbal or green tea can be beneficial.

Who should not eat it?

Not to be had in excess by pregnant mothers and lactating mothers. Capsaicin in cayenne can aggravate stomach ulcers and other gastro inflammatory conditions. Not suitable for infants and children as it can trigger respiratory distress.

Raw or Cooked? What changes can take place when cooked?

Best had as a seasoning with food preparations as it is pungent in the raw powder form.

12) Mint

Qualities: Cooling.


Anti-bacterial, anti-oxidant and diuretic effect. Good for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), heartburn, gastro intestinal disturbances and dehydration, blood pressure, water retention and digestion problems. Mint capsules are also available over the counter and can be had to alleviate symptoms of IBS. Good source of Calcium, Potassium, Vitamin C, Iron and soluble fibre. Also helps remove excess fluid retention and lowers blood pressure.

How much to eat?

Best had in the raw form. One can simple eat a handful of fresh mint leaves. Can also be had with fruit juices and herbal teas. Can be blended with coriander leaves, parsley and enjoyed as a sandwich spread.

Who should not eat it?

Peppermint oils are can trigger side-effects of certain medications when had together. Mint as in the natural form is considered safe. Taking more than 3 cups of raw mint can induce diarrhoea and bloating. Avoid mint when taking antacids and stomach acid lowering drugs.

Raw or Cooked? What changes can take place when cooked?

Cooking mint can destroy the nutrient properties. Best to have in the fresh form to get its complete goodness.

13) Thyme

Qualities: Warming ingredient.


Anti-bacterial, detoxifying, diuretic and blood pressure lowering effect. Good for respiratory illnesses, water retention due to kidney disease, UTI and high blood pressure. Thyme contains the oil thymol that gives the body a detox effect by increasing urination and removing toxins in blood and colon. It also relaxes the blood vessels and improves blood circulation.

How much to eat?

It adds a boost of flavour to soups and salads. Having a tablespoon thrice a week is found to be health-beneficial. Tea made from infusing one table spoon of thyme can relieve nasal congestion and thin mucous.

Who should not eat it?

Thyme can cause adverse allergic reactions. To be avoided by those with bleeding disorders. If taking other medications, it is advisable to take thyme oil after consulting your physician.

Raw or Cooked? What changes can take place when cooked?

The health benefit factors in thyme are not heat stable. Best to sauté, fry, and had with other vegetables.

14) Fennel Seeds

Qualities: Warming.


Decongestant and appetite stimulant, muscle relaxant and diuretic. Good for high blood pressure, respiratory tract illnesses , digestive disorders, flatulence, water retention, and muscle cramps. Helps prevent colic in infants. Alleviates bloating and flatulence in adults. Eases digestion. Being a good source of potassium it helps balance electrolytes and water and thus reduces blood pressure.

How much to eat?

Two teaspoons of raw fennel seeds after meals can aid digestion. Soaking 1 tablespoon overnight and drinking the water in the morning on an empty stomach can be beneficial for patients with high blood pressure and water retention. Adding 1 tsp of fennel seeds to 1 cup of lentil and legume preparations can help reduce bloating.

Who should not eat it?

Fennel seeds can cause allergic skin reactions. Those allergic to carrot, celery and mugwort should avoid fennel. Raw fennel seeds not be taken by those with a sensitive colon. Fennel has been found to interact with birth control pills, certain antibiotics. Some studies have shown that excess fennel consumption can trigger cancers of the female reproductive system.

Raw or Cooked? What changes can take place when cooked?

Elderly people and those with a sensitive colon can soak fennel seeds and drink the water. Roasting and adding fennel seed powder to curries and gravies can add flavour and goodness to health.

15) Cinnamon

Qualities: Warming.


Blood sugar lowering, anti-bacterial and anti-oxidant effect. Good for diabetes and Insulin Resistance. Decreases appetite and slows the absorption of blood glucose in the intestine. Good source of soluble fibre when had in powder form.

How much to eat?

Cinnamon is found to have medicinal values. Cinnamon bark pieces can be added to food preparations. It can also be roasted and powdered and one teaspoon can be had on a daily basis. Diabetics can add cinnamon sticks into teas. Adding a tea spoon of cinnamon powder to lemonade, black tea or café can relieve constipation.

Who should not eat it?

Cinnamon Tablets or capsules are to be strictly avoided by pregnant, lactating mothers and those with liver disorders. Cinnamon is safe to be had up to six grams (1 tsp of powder) on daily basis. Having excess can cause diarrhoea. Since Cinnamon contains Coumarin, a blood thinning agent, it is to be avoid if having bleeding disorders. Cinnamon can cause allergic skin reactions and inflammation of the oral mucosa. It is recommended to avoid taking cinnamon along with medications. If one is on medications, it is safe to consult a physician before self treating with cinnamon.

Raw or Cooked? What changes take place when cooked?

Boiling and cooking cinnamon, releases the volatile oils and poyphenols in it. Sautéing, frying, the sticks can weaken the wooden fibres to release its nutrients.

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