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Spices and herbs may help you avoid disease

By Amy Paturel
M.S., M.P.H.
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Imagine going to your doctor with joint pain and leaving with a prescription for ginger.

Before the advent of synthetic drugs, that might have happened. Herbs and spices have a long history as folk medicine, and not without merit.

Today, researchers are working to quantify their health benefits.

"We don't have enough evidence to say herbs and spices are 100-percent disease-preventing, but several have positive outlooks," says Milton Stokes, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

Oregano: The strongest health benefit for oregano, shown at left, is that it's been linked to food preservation. In 2003, researchers found that applying a concentrated oregano extract to prepared meats may destroy Listeria bacteria. "The same chemical constituents that give herbs and spices their pungency are also powerful bacterial inhibitors," says Catherine Donnelly, Ph.D., professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Vermont. "Oregano is one of the best bacteria killers." Its phenols -- a type of antioxidant -- destroy the cell membranes of bacteria.

Cinnamon: "Cinnamon affects cholesterol, triglycerides, and glucose transport -- all reported in clinical trials," says Don Graves, Ph.D., a professor of biochemistry at the University of California in Santa Barbara. In a 2003 study, researchers supplemented the diets of 60 diabetic men and women with one, three, or six grams (just more than one teaspoon) of cinnamon daily. After 40 days, subjects' levels of ldl cholesterol fell by as much as 26 percent. "There was no difference in the effects at one gram or six," Graves says.

Ginger: In 2001, a headline-making study found highly concentrated forms of ginger helped reduce osteoarthritis-related knee pain. "Ginger improved pain to a degree almost the same as anti-inflammatory medications," says researcher Roy Altman, M.D., professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. There is a catch, though: "If you wanted to use ginger for this effect, you'd have to take a bushel and boil it down," Altman says. Ginger's most consistently proven benefit is its ability to relieve nausea.

Turmeric: Because rates of Alzheimer's disease are lower in India, where the population eats a diet containing more turmeric than Western diets, scientists have suggested the spice may be linked to preserving mental function. "The compounds in turmeric have demonstrated antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and cholesterol-lowering properties -- all thought to be involved in the onset of Alzheimer's disease," says Sally Frautschy, Ph.D., associate professor of medicine and neurology at UCLA.

"Although much of the research on herbs and spices is preliminary, there's no downside to adding them to your diet," says Dave Grotto, R.D., spokesperson for the ADA. He recommends focusing on one of the strongest benefits: Herbs and spices help boost the flavors of food without added fat. "If herbs and spices help make healthy food more palatable, that's a win," Grotto says.

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Researchers are working to quantify the health benefits of herbs and spices.


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