As long as spices have been used for flavour, they have been used as medicine.
Spices have traditionally been prescribed for medicinal benefit in many cultures.
In recent years scientists have started studying these benefits, and there is some interesting evidence emerging on some spices and their potential – or that of their active ingredients – to benefit our health. The top three are:
The active ingredient in turmeric, curcumin, is a powerful antioxidant, has anti-inflammatory properties, and may have some benefit in treating digestive disorders. It also has potential in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease and has been shown to inhibit the growth of cancerous tumours.
Studies have suggested that cinnamon may be beneficial for those with type 2 diabetes, although it would seem you'd need to eat more than a teaspoon a day to see any benefit. However, a sprinkle of cinnamon on your toast won't hurt.
Ginger is well known for preventing nausea and vomiting and is often used to combat travel sickness and morning sickness. At least 1g or 1/2 teaspoon of ginger was found effective in preventing nausea and vomiting in a study of over 360 patients in 2006.
Most of the health benefits associated with these spices, and the many others that are being studied, come from active ingredients or components of the spice, rather than the whole spice itself.
It's unlikely we're ever going to use enough of a particular spice in our cooking to get significant health benefit (at least not if you want to actually eat the dish). But they're still a valuable addition to food for the flavour and interest they add.
Spices as obesity fighter?
A brand new review from scientists in Holland and Canada, suggests spices could be used as 'functional' ingredients to help fight obesity, because of their ability to generate heat in the body (thermogenesis).
For example, they found the active compound in chilli – capsaicin – boosted heat in the body, meaning people burn more energy. So next time you break into a sweat after eating a curry, it could be a good thing!