5 Delicious Spices With Health Benefits
Reach for your spice rack to improve your health and protect against chronic diseases. With 16 flavor-packed recipes.
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Above: Sheet Pan Chicken Shawarma. Photograph by Olga Ivanova.
A well-stocked spice rack does much more than perk up meals. Those little jars also offer an astonishing range of health benefits.
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What’s so great about spices?
Ancient cultures have embraced the health benefits of herbs and spices for thousands of years. And modern Western scientists have been finding plenty of proof that spices are good for you. Spices are excellent sources of antioxidants, helpful molecules that can neutralize harmful free radicals inside your body. Depending on the spice, eating it regularly may also boost your immune system, protect you against inflammation — which is related to countless conditions including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease — and even fight obesity.
But before you consider eating spices right out of the jar (no thanks!), note that the evidence is still relatively slim when it comes to individual spices and specific health benefits. Most controlled studies use extracts or supplements containing the spices’ active compounds rather than the spices themselves. While the findings are promising, studies often include a caveat that more research is required.
And yet, there is a clear connection between spicy food and good health: One large study found that those who ate spiced foods almost daily had a 14% lower risk of death than people who go spicy less than once a week.
5 popular spices with health benefits
The list of spices with active ingredients that may have medicinal purposes includes coriander, cardamom, fennel seed, fenugreek, and garlic, as well as herbs like oregano and peppermint. But you can cut to the chase! The five spices that follow have dozens of studies and extensive research behind them. You probably already have all five in your pantry.
Boost your body with black pepper
If you regularly twist a pepper grinder over your food, you’re doing more than adding a little zing. Piperine, the active compound in black pepper, acts as an antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory, and it can help with pain relief, say for osteoarthritis. It may also help with asthma and allergic reactions, digestion, and depression. Black pepper offers another nifty trick: It helps your body absorb certain nutrients — including the curcumin found in turmeric, which you’ll hear more about below. Using both spices in a recipe could give you added benefits.
Cacio e pepe might be the most famous dish with black pepper front and center, and it couldn’t be easier. To make it, you just boil spaghetti and reserve some of the starchy cooking water. Toss the cooked pasta with grated Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses and some of that water until it makes a creamy sauce, then add a generous amount of coarsely ground black pepper.
The spiced chicken in this Mediterranean recipe offers up more than just a tasty vehicle for a side of harissa sauce. It’s got turmeric, cumin, black pepper, cinnamon, and cayenne, all of which go into a simple, lemony marinade you put together ahead of time. Serve with warm pita and a quick yogurt sauce.
This quick stir-fry calls for an impressive two teaspoons of ground black pepper, which gets mixed with fish sauce and brown sugar to make a couldn’t-be-easier sauce. It adds a spicy-sweet kick to crispy cubes of tofu plus plenty of fresh, crisp-tender veggies. Definitely serve it with rice to catch all that flavor.
Heat up your health with cayenne pepper
The capsaicin that gives chili peppers their heat pack a punch when it comes to your health. Eating lots of chilies has been linked to lower mortality overall and from cancer, heart disease, and respiratory diseases. Capsaicin also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It can help bring down triglycerides and lower cholesterol levels, and it’s linked to better blood glucose control. But there’s more. Chili peppers can boost your gut health and your microbiome, and capsaicin may even help with weight loss.
Cayenne is the most widely available chili spice, but you’ll get similar benefits from red pepper flakes, ground chipotle or ancho chilies, Aleppo, gochugaru, or any other dried, ground chili pepper.
A full teaspoon of cayenne — plus a half-teaspoon of black pepper — give naturally mellow roasted almonds a heck of a kick. Set out a bowlful of these on a cheese board, serve them with cocktails, or pack some into a brown-bag lunch. Or just, y’know, grab a handful and munch away.
Affordable, easy to find tilapia gets spiced up with a rub made with chili powder, cumin, and cayenne. Along with a tasty scallion-charred corn-black bean mixture, chopped cilantro, and lime juice, that spicy fish gets wrapped up inside fresh corn tortillas for a quick and easy dinner.
Nashville hot chicken has been having a moment, assuming moments can last years. Traditionally, the chicken is coated with flour and deep-fried before getting coated with a cayenne-based paste. For this paleo-friendly version, you skip the flour and the frying, roast the chicken until the skin is shatteringly crisp, and then add the heat.
Even out your blood sugar with cinnamon
Delicious in both sweet and savory dishes, cinnamon sits front and center on many spice racks. And it’s been the focus of numerous studies to check out its potential health benefits. Eating cinnamon has shown promise helping to lower blood sugar levels for people with type 2 diabetes. Plus, studies using cinnamon extracts found it may ease inflammation, help with high blood pressure, and lower your risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
These pancakes are miles ahead of anything you’d get at a diner. Cinnamon plays beautifully with whole-grain oats and whole-wheat flour, and the grated apple is a natural addition. Don’t skip the apple-cinnamon topping — those lightly sweet, melt-in-your-mouth nuggets are pure deliciousness.
The marinade for this chicken calls for a substantial two teaspoons of cinnamon and a healthy pour of honey, so on first look it may seem like it’ll be too sweet — but curry powder pulls it squarely into savory territory. Chicken pieces soak up those magical flavors in just an hour, so you can toss it together when you get home and be eating 90 minutes later.
You can make this recipe in mere minutes — it’s simply dried apples, dates, almonds, and plenty of cinnamon whirred in a food processor, then formed into balls. The end result tastes like apple pie, but without all the sugar and fat.
Soothe your stomach with ginger
If you reach for ginger tea to soothe an upset stomach, you’re on to something. Research has found that ginger can help ease nausea and reduce vomiting. Ginger also has antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, so it may help with menstrual cramps and other pains, especially from arthritis. There’s even some evidence that eating ginger regularly can help you manage your weight.
Tuck this one away for times when your stomach needs soothing: In just seven minutes, you can have a steaming bowl of ginger-turmeric-garlic broth with perfectly cooked vegetables and a little pasta to make it heartier. It will settle your stomach and keep you feeling satisfied for hours.
This is one of those snack cake-bars that looks indulgent but is secretly filled with good stuff. Who would’ve guessed that just four ingredients — almond flour, dates, almond milk, and ground ginger — could combine into something so tasty? Pack one in your gym bag for a post-workout burst of energy with anti-inflammatory action.
You won’t want to wait for a stomachache to slurp up a bowl of these sweet-and-spicy noodles, and since they’re ready in just 20 minutes from pantry ingredients, you don’t have to. The sauce features plenty of ground ginger as well as red pepper flakes and black pepper, so it’s quite an eye-opener, but the honey tempers the heat just enough.
Get the truth about turmeric
Does it seem like turmeric is some kind of tasty wonder drug? You’ll find foods containing it on all kinds of wellness menus, often with a promise attached. That’s because one of the active compounds in turmeric, curcumin, has been studied quite a bit.
Researchers have found it can provide antioxidant properties and anti-inflammatory effects, which could protect you from cancer, metabolic syndrome, and cognitive decline; improve your heart health; and much more. Bear in mind, though, that turmeric is only 3% curcumin, so you’d have to eat a lot to really make a difference.
Bright, creamy, and citrusy, this smoothie will get your day off to a great start. It’s packed with fresh and frozen fruit, plus a splash of almond milk and a generous portion of fresh or dried turmeric. You can thank the turmeric for that gorgeous yellow color, too.
If you knew a delicious bowl of creamy soup would help support your immune system, wouldn’t you dig right in? You’ll get plenty of turmeric and ginger, plus garlic, coriander, and a pinch of cayenne pepper — not to mention all the beta-carotene in a pound and a half of carrots.
Indian recipes often feature turmeric, like in this quick and easy curry. The spice helps to season baby spinach, canned tomatoes, and canned chickpeas, along with garlic, ginger, and cayenne. Garam masala adds still more spice, while coconut milk gives the sauce a luscious texture.
If you started your day with a cool turmeric smoothie, then why not close with a steamy mug of golden milk? The blend of turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and black pepper makes enough for eight servings, so you’ll be able to treat yourself on multiple occasions.
More ways to eat healthy
Keep reading for more ways to optimize your health through your diet.