Spices are plant-based substances used to add flavour and colour to food, and have immense
health benefits. Spices are derived from the roots, barks, fruits, seeds and leaves of plants, but
should not be confused with herbs – which are mostly used for garnishing and flavouring. While
many people find the use of whole spices convenient, most spices are also found in ground or
In this post Pritish Kumar is brief about the origin of spices, types and health benefits associated with them. Must read the full article.
India is currently the world’s largest producer of spices, and of the 109 varieties of spices listed by
the International Organization for Standardisation (ISO), India produces and exports 75 types.
This export is not just of spices like pepper, chilli, turmeric, ginger, cardamom, coriander, cumin, fennel,
fenugreek, celery, nutmeg, mace, garlic, tamarind and vanilla; but also of processed spices like
spice oils, oleoresins, mint products, curry powder, spice powders, blends and seasonings.
Traditionally, spices are grown and used in regions with warmer climates. The uses are not just
culinary but also ritualistic and cosmetic in nature in countries like India.
Spice trade dates back centuries, and predominantly grew out of the Indian subcontinent, East Asia and the Middle East.
The medicinal properties and health benefits of spices are especially celebrated in these parts of
the world, so much so that most home remedies for minor and major ailments include individual or
a mix of spices.
Types of spices
Spices are usually classified on the basis of the parts of plants and trees they are derived from.
The following are the major classifications of spices based on botanical origins.
- Aril: Mace, anardana
- Bark: Cinnamon, cassia
- Berry: Black pepper, white pepper, juniper
- Bud: Clove, caper
- Bulb: Onion, garlic, leek, shallot
- Flower: Saffron, caper, marjoram
- Fruit: Chilli, cardamom, allspice, kokam
- Kernel: Nutmeg
- Latex: Asafoetida
- Leaf: Mint, curry leaf, bay leaf, chive, rosemary, thyme, fenugreek
- Pod: Vanilla, tamarind
- Seeds: Cumin, black cumin, fenugreek, coriander, fennel, carom, poppy, aniseed, mustard,
- Rhizome: Turmeric, ginger, galangal
Nutritional value of spices
Spices generally have a strong aroma and flavour, and are used in small quantities. So, they don’t
usually add any extra calories to food. While the nutritional value of spices varies from type to type,
most spices are rich sources of protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats, vitamin A, vitamin B6, and
minerals like sodium, potassium, calcium, iron and magnesium. Most spices are also rich
in antioxidant compounds like polyphenols and flavonoids.
Health benefits of spices
Spices have a wide variety of medicinal properties, most of which can be used to cure acute and
chronic (also called non-communicable) diseases. While most of these benefits are well known in
countries like India, where spice production and use dates back to ancient times, countries like the
USA are only recently learning of them. Here are some of the benefits you can reap by consuming
Spices reduce inflammation
Inflammation is the body’s natural response to harmful pathogens and stimuli, and is usually acute
or chronic in nature. Spices have been extensively used to treat inflammation, and recent studies
have supported this practice.
A study published in the Journal of Translational Medicine in 2018 confirms that nutraceuticals derived from spices like clove, coriander, garlic, ginger, onion, pepper,turmeric, etc target inflammatory pathways and can therefore prevent, treat and cure various chronic diseases like arthritis.
Spices to fight diabetes
Many spices, like cinnamon, add a sweet flavour to food without adding to the blood sugar levels of
the body. These spices contain high concentrations of cinnamaldehyde, a compound that helps
slow down the rate of carbohydrate breakdown and improves insulin sensitivity. Fenugreek seeds
and ginger have proven to be equally beneficial for prediabetes and diabetes treatment because
they help control blood sugar levels.
Spices aid weight loss
Most spices are rich in antioxidants that boost the metabolic rates of the body. These include
spices like pepper, chilli, cinnamon, fennel, fenugreek, cardamom, and cayenne pepper. These
spices are effective digestive stimulants and have diuretic properties that flush out toxins in the
body much faster and more effectively. Even a simple tea made with a blend of these spices can
help you along on your weight loss journey.
Spices relieve nausea and indigestion
Spices may improve heart health
There are a number of spices which are effective against cardiovascular diseases and can help
you maintain heart health. Garlic has an active compound called allicin, which inhibits the rise of
artery-clogging low-density lipoproteins and maintains blood circulation. Curcumin, which is
present in turmeric, can prevent myocardial infarctions or heart attack. Ginger and ginger extracts
can inhibit aortic atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries of the heart. Black pepper, cinnamon
and coriander have similar contributions to heart health.
Spices may improve skin quality
Most spices are full of antioxidant, antibacterial and antifungal properties, and can help you get
clear and glowing skin. A number of spices are so effective in this case that apart from ingesting
them, topical applications are also recommended. Turmeric’s role in this regard is exceptionally
celebrated, with the ground spice being even ritualistically applied to brides and grooms on their
wedding day. Cinnamon, nutmeg, fennel, ginger, etc are also known to improve skin quality when
blended and applied topically.
Spices for treating infections
Because of their highly-effective antimicrobial properties, most spices are natural cures
for infections. Spices like cloves, turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, black pepper, carom, asafoetida
and cumin are particularly good at boosting your immunity and keeping fungal
infections and bacterial infections at bay.
Spices for fighting cancer
Spices like turmeric, black cumin, ginger, garlic, saffron, black pepper and chillies are considered
to be especially effective in the treatment of cancers and the reduction of tumours. These spices
are known to contain several bioactive compounds like curcumin, thymoquinone, piperine and
capsaicin. A study published in the journal Nutrients in 2016 showcased how these compounds
induce apoptosis (or death) of tumour cells, inhibits their proliferation, migration and invasion. The
study also noted that adequate levels of these compounds in the body make tumours more
receptive to radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
Spices aid food preservation
Apart from keeping your body healthy, spices can also ensure the safety of the food you consume.
Many spices like clove, cinnamon, cumin, thyme and oregano, have antibacterial and antifungal
properties that inhibit the growth of bacteria (Bacillus subtilis, Pseudomonas fluorescens),
pathogens (Staphylococcus aureus, Vibrio parahaemolyticus) and fungi (Aspergillus flavus) that
can spoil food. Cook your food with these spices and you can preserve them longer and eat them
without fearing infections.
Spices as aphrodisiacs
A number of spices have been proven to work as natural aphrodisiacs, particularly because these
spices trigger an increase in certain hormones associated with a raised libido. The saponins in
fenugreek can increase the growth of testosterone, and raise male libido. Fennel can increase
estrogen levels and work the same way. Saffron, nutmeg, garlic and ginger increase levels of
arousal and vaginal lubrication lubrication. Ginseng is often used to naturally treat erectile