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A Few of my Favourite Things: Herbs and Spices (Part 1 - Spices)

Updated: May 4, 2022

Herbs and Spices not only can add incredible flavour to a food, they can help preserve their quality. And while they are widely known for their use in the kitchen, it goes without saying they also hold an important place in our medicine cabinets. Some spices aid with digestion, heal wounds and aches, some help relieve respiratory ailments, some help to alleviate nausea. Many spices have anti-inflammatory , antibacterial, antiviral and antioxidant properties - that is mouthful, but all good qualities!

How many herbs and spices do you use?

Is There a Difference Between Herbs and Spices?

The word 'Herb' is used to describe a plant or part of a plant that is used for medicinal purposes and is a plant that does NOT have a woody stem (shrubs, trees and bushes all DO have woody stems). Spices are derived from the bark, fruit, seed or other parts of an herb, tree or shrub and are used to flavour foods.

Can a spice be an herb and can an herb be a spice? Can it flavour food and have medicinal benefits and vice versa? Absolutely! And those, of course are my favourite ones to use.

In Part 1 of this blog we will look at my favourite spices to use to flavour food and drink - that also have some great added health benefits, of course!

In Part 2 (coming soon) I will share my favourite herbs used primarily for medicinal purposes (but may add some flavour too!) - stay tuned!

Add a little Spice to your Life!

Many different regions are know for their traditional use of certain spices - depending on what, historically, can be grown locally. For example, in India they often use cumin, turmeric and coriander as the 3 basic spices used in most dishes. Often called, collectively, ‘masala’ - these spices can readily be grown and found in this region.

Many of the flavourful, spice using dishes we cook now in Canada and the US are often influenced and inspired by Asian, South American, and Middle Eastern (just to name a few) traditional cuisine.

The delicate blend of herbs and spices and how they are cooked is an art. For example, a few more seconds of frying a particular spice may totally distort its taste or destroy its properties. But don’t let that discourage you from giving different spice heavy recipes a try!

Practice makes perfect – or at least a whole lot better – and it will be worth it.

My Favourite Spices and their Super Powers!

1. Cinnamon

Most people are familiar with this one…it is the smell of Christmas, essential for hot mulled cider or gingerbread cookies. It is warm and sweet but a bit spicy - used in foods and drinks, in personal health and cosmetic products and in popular essential oil blends.

There are more than 2 million varieties of cinnamon but the 2 most popular are Ceylon cinnamon (“true Cinnamon”) and Cassia (Chinese variety).

An oldie but a goody – cinnamon is one of the oldest spices known. It was used as far back as in ancient Egypt, not only for flavorings and medicinal purposes, but as an embalming agent. At one point it was so highly valued that it was more valuable than gold and was regarded as a gift for kings!

Not so valued in modern times - cinnamon is cheap, widely available in every grocery stores and found as an ingredient in many foods and recipes. But look at these health benefits - maybe we should value it more?

Health benefits of Cinnamon

1. It has anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal (can help reduce Candida overgrowth) properties

2. Contains antioxidants with anti-inflammatory effects

3. Its prebiotic properties may improve gut health

4. Reduces blood pressure

5. Lowers blood sugar and risk of type 2 diabetes

6. Relieves digestive discomfort

7. Protects the heart and brain

8. May have cancer preventative qualities

9. Great for the skin

10. Good for oral health

According to Dr. Axe, as little as half a teaspoon daily can have positive effects on blood sugar levels, digestion, immunity and more. And stronger doses are also extremely beneficial for improving heart disease risk and cutting your risk of diabetes, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases.

Cinnamon also supplies a wide variety of important nutrients and is especially rich in fiber and manganese, along with several other vitamins and minerals.

How to Use Cinnamon

These health benefits can be obtained in the form of its pure bark, essential oils, in ground spice form (which is bark powder) or in extract form when its special phenolic compounds, flavonoids and antioxidants have been isolated.

There are 2 main types of cinnamon available to the consumer; Ceylon cinnamon, known as "true" cinnamon and Cassia cinnamon, the more common variety.

You can find Cassia cinnamon in the spice aisle of most grocery stores. However, look for organic Ceylon cinnamon powder and cinnamon essential oil in health food stores or ethnic markets to really get the most benefits from cinnamon.

Try these Keto Cinnamon Buns (Low Carb/Sugar free and Grain Free)

Can You Have Too Much?

When used in moderation, cinnamon is generally safe and can be consumed with minimal risk of side effects.

Cinnamon can become unsafe if you take too many cinnamon supplements, especially if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, have diabetes, have liver disease, or recently had surgery. Always make sure you read the recommended dose of cinnamon extracts and other herbal extracts, and don’t consume more than is recommended without speaking with your doctor first in order to avoid complications.

Additionally, if you’re using cinnamon essential oil, you might also want to test a small patch of your skin first - check for irritation and allergic reactions before using larger amounts. Although there are different opinions on this, I don't think it is a good idea to take an essential oil internally - aside from a few, like oil of oregano if sold from a nutritional supplement company for the purpose of ingestion.

2. Ginger

Ginger is the tuberous root of a tropical plant that originated in India. It has many uses and can be found readily in most grocery stores. I love this spice for so many reasons including the amazing health benefits - It was my best friend when I was pregnant with my daughter and throwing up most mornings!

Health Benefits of Ginger

1. Stimulates Digestion

2. Reduces inflammation – I love to chew on a few pieces of ginger or drink some ginger tea after a particularly tough work out or when I have strained a muscle

3. Reduces Nausea – this has been a remedy for many pregnant women suffering from morning sickness!

4. Lowers BP

5. Antibacterial properties

6. Blood Sugar regulator

7. Reduces Menstrual Pains

8. Positively affects cholesterol

How to Use

Fresh ginger root: This is the most potent form of ginger, my favourite way of eating ginger, and the most versatile way of using it. You can slice it or grate it and steep it in hot water for tea, mince it into stir-fry dishes (often along the masala spices), juice it, add it to your smoothies, or even take a slice and suck on it - not all of us were made to eat it this way - it has a bite to it!

Ground ginger: (Dried ginger root ground into a powder) Ground ginger can be used in similar ways to fresh ginger. It can be steeped in hot water for tea or added to your favorite recipes. I like to use powdered ginger in baking - yummy things like ginger snaps, pumpkin pie or gingerbread cookies.

Ginger capsules: If you don't love the taste of ginger and want the health benefits, supplements might be the way to go.

Ginger tea: You can make ginger tea using fresh ginger or ground ginger - or you can buy ready-to-go ginger extract tea bags at the store. These are great to have on hand if you feel nauseated or want to settle your stomach after eating.

My Favourite way to Fight a Cold

Steep ginger pieces or ground ginger in boiling water. If you are feeling a cold coming on I like to add some cinnamon and a wee bit of raw honey to the drink. It really helps boost my body’s immune defenses. Great to try with children too as it is pretty yummy – just go easy on the cinnamon for them.

Or, add a few slices of fresh ginger root to your daily warm water with lemon – more on that is this blog post about warm water with lemon.

You can use Ginger Oil topically for pain or try Ginger Chews or candies - easy to take on the go - they have a mild flavour but watch out for added sugars and syrups.

3. Turmeric

Turmeric is a member of the ginger family that is extensively cultivated in India, China, Indonesia and other tropical countries.

The root is cured, polished and ground into a powder – this is how most of us use turmeric. It is the major ingredient in curry powder and is used in many different recipes for both flavour and as a natural colorant (bright yellow colour). A much better option that the toxic yellow food colouring, tartrazine.

Turmeric has traditionally been, and is still currently used, in both Chinese and Indian medicine as an anti-inflammatory agent and in the treatment of many conditions: flatulence, menstrual difficulties, toothache, bloody urine, hemorrhage, and chest pain.

Curcumin gives turmeric its yellow colour and it is curcumin that has demonstrated anti-inflammatory effects and antioxidant effects. So much so that many people take curcumin as a supplement for these benefits.

Turmeric is considered to also have beneficial effects on the skin and in India researchers are looking into the traditional belief that turmeric prevents Cancer.

Turmeric, along with cumin and coriander, as already mentioned together make up what is called masala and is the basis for many amazing Indian curries. I was really intimidated by these spices - and curries in general. But they are not that hard to work with and there are so many amazing recipes out there - I really like the masala spices with coconut milk and cilantro for more of a Thai curry.

Don't be afraid! Look up a recipe and give it a try!

If you find a curry too hot for you or your family, add (more) coconut milk and/or top it off with some plain organic yogurt to make the taste "less spicy".

This is a yummy coconut curry daal that contains both Turmeric and Ginger!

4. Mint

The herbs in the mint family (including, lemon balm, marjoram, rosemary, sage, thyme and peppermint) are one of the most useful both for flavour and for their medicinal benefits. This is due to valuable oils in the hair like oil glands on the surfaces of the leaves and stems of these plants.

Greek Myth: the tale of the nymph, Minthe – she attracted the attention of Hades and as a result Hades' wife, the jealous Persephone, attacked Minthe and was in the process of trampling her to death, when Hades turned her into the herb – which was ever sacred to him.

Health Benefits of Mint

Mint is a carminative and a digestant - this means that it contains a volatile oil that affects the digestive system by relaxing the stomach muscles, increasing the peristalsis of the intestine and reducing the gas in the system. It has been recognized as being very effective in relieving symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.

Fun fact: While there are 25 different species of mints, peppermint is actually a hybrid between water mint and spearmint.

How to Use Mint

Tea is probably the most common way of consuming mint (often in the dried form), but there are many other ways to enjoy this refreshing herb! Foods that are enhanced by mint include green salads and fruit salads, marinated vegetables, corn, broccoli, asparagus and legumes. I love to add mint to a summer salad like a chickpea feta salad, yum.

Try this: toss 2 cups of cooked eggplant cubes with 1/2 cup of chopped, fresh mint leaves, 1/2 cup plain, organic yogurt, 1 clove garlic and 1/9 tsp. cayenne.

Add mint to a summer drink like a sun tea or make your own mojitos - go easy on the sugar or find a good substitute and then go easy on the mojitos:).

Note: conventionally grown mint is frequently sprayed with pesticides, so choose organic when possible or grow your own! Mint is an easy one to grow but it is prolific - be careful it doesn't take over your garden!

Fresh vs dried

When using herbs, it is far better, for both flavour and health benefits, to use them fresh. Fresh his is how I prefer to use them - but sometimes that is not possible - they aren't in season and/or are hard to find. So, dried herbs can easily be substituted into some recipes. Not all though - I wouldn't recommend dried herbs in fresh green salads:(

When using dried; use one part dried to 3 to 4 parts fresh herbs. for example if a recipe calls for 1 tablespoon (15ml) of fresh herbs you can use 1 tsp (5 ml) of dried herbs.

Grow your own

If you have the space and the inclination, try growing your own herbs! Most are pretty easy to do and don't require too much space (can easily be grown in planters on the deck or balcony). Some good ones to start with are parsley, oregano, mint, rosemary and thyme. I find basil a bit more tricky - my thumb is not any shade of green, sigh, as nothing beats fresh basil from your garden!

The Bottom Line

Spice it up! Subtly, of course. It is well worth it for both flavour and for the health benefits that herbs and spices have to offer.

Hit the local spice stores or ethnic markets in your area. The spices will often have superior quality and freshness, not to mention there will be a much broader selection than the supermarket offerings. And opt for organic whenever possible as they will less likely to have been irradiated.

Can you imagine a world without spices? I would say no, for the flavour they add alone, but with the incredible health benefits that these herbs and spices provide - it is a definite NO WAY, for me!


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