The Harold Leever Regional Cancer Center

The Spices of Life

Posted on by Karen Sabbath, MS, RD, CSO

If you want to turn a recipe from bland and boring, to interesting and complex, try adding herbs and spices. Imagine apple pie without cinnamon, or tomato sauce without basil, oregano, garlic and pepper. It turns out that herbs and spices not only enhance the flavor of food, but they also add significant health benefits.

Herbs are from the leaves of plants (basil, parsley, cilantro, mint), while spices like cinnamon, are from the seeds, berries, bark or roots of a plant. Research shows that herbs and spices are loaded with healthy compounds, called phytochemicals that help to fight inflammation and reduce cell damage in the body, possibly resulting in preventing or reducing illness or disease, including cancer. They add so much extra flavor, that it is often possible to reduce the amount of sugar and salt added to food, making the recipe even healthier.

Dried herbs may have more intense flavor than fresh; if your recipe calls for fresh herbs, you can substitute about half (or less) the quantity of dried herbs. Fresh herbs can be stored for several days by rinsing with water, wrapping in a damp paper towel and placing in a plastic bag.

If you can, choose real spices (fresh or dried), rather than herbs and spices sold in supplement (pill or capsule) form. The exact content of these products can’t be verified, because there is a lack of government regulation of supplements. Fresh or dried herbs and spices contain an “army” of antioxidants that work together to provide multiple health benefits. It’s unknown if you get those same benefits with supplements containing a single ingredient.

TOP 7 MOST HEALTHY SPICES (listed alphabetically)

CAYENNE PEPPER: Besides giving your food a little kick, fresh, dried or powdered hot peppers can help boost metabolism and keep blood vessels healthy, largely due to the presence of capsaicin. The main source of heat is the seeds and ribs of the peppers, so if you are using fresh, removing them will turn down the heat a little. Not only is pepper found in many savory recipes, but it can be added to baked goods (like ginger cookies) and even chocolate!!!

CINNAMON: Most of us love the smell of cinnamon and apples baking. Cinnamon adds sweetness to food, often reduce the amount of added sugar needed in recipes. It may help reduce inflammation, decrease cell damage, fight bacteria, and protect against certain diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson disease. Some studies have suggested that cinnamon can help to lower blood sugar, although these results are mixed. Although most popular in baked goods, adding cinnamon to roasted vegetables, chicken and grains like rice and couscous adds warmth and sweetness.

GARLIC: The powerful compound in garlic, allicin, is responsible for the considerable health benefits of garlic. It can help to lower cholesterol, lower the risk of heart disease and hypertension and may help to stop the growth of cancer cells. Allicin is formed after the garlic clove is chopped or crushed and allowed to rest. Add to meats, fish, chicken, soups, sauces, grains and vegetables.

GINGER: Ginger can be purchased in powder form where the spices are located, or in its root form, found in the produce department. It helps to prevent cell damage, having both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as possibly helping to lower blood sugar and blood pressure. It’s a well-known remedy for nausea and indigestion, and possibly motion sickness. Use it in stir-fries, sauces, stews or sauces, as well as baked goods. Homemade ginger tea settles an upset stomach.

OREGANO: This spice has more than 20 times the antioxidant power of any other spice/herb, and four times more than blueberries! It can help to fight off infection, and possibly help to fend off heart disease, stroke and cancer. Add it to sauces and meats for an extra hit of nutrition and flavor.

ROSEMARY:  This herb, also a powerful antioxidant that helps prevent cell damage, is a member of the mint family and is prized for its woodsy smell and flavor. It may improve concentration and mood. It can improve brain function, and its oil, when rubbed into the scalp, may promote hair growth! It’s best when combined with meats and potatoes, but can be used in many other foods, including tea.

TURMERIC:  Responsible for the rich orange-gold color of curry powder, the phytochemical in turmeric, curcumin, is a powerful anti-inflammatory. It is being researched for its possible complementary role in treating a wide range of health problems ranging from arthritis, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, depression and some cancers. A dash of turmeric or curry powder to chicken, fish or stir-fries adds a warmth and depth of flavor.

These are just a few of the hundreds of herbs and spices available to enhance taste and nutritional value food. Don’t forget about basil, thyme, mint, cardamom, cloves, cocoa and cumin, just to name a few.

You can get the benefits and flavors from many spices by using spice rubs or mixtures on many types of foods. Think apple and pumpkin pie spice mixtures for baked goods, and roasted squash and sweet potatoes. Poultry and Old Bay seasonings are old standbys, and are low in salt and great on many foods. Other favorites are Herbes de Provence, a French standby, and Za’atar, a delicious blend of Middle Eastern spices. There are spice rubs and seasoning mixes for every conceivable food. Read the labels: some contain a lot of salt. Remember that 1 TSP salt is equal to 2400 mg sodium, so if the sodium is too high, put it back on the shelf. If you are feeling adventurous, make your own!

Be generous and enjoy the aromas, taste and health benefits of these easy to make spice rub recipes.


These can be prepared ahead by assembling the spices, and storing them in jars.

Warm Indian Spice Blend (Makes about 1 cup)
Use on meats, fish, poultry, rice/grains and vegetables:
3 TBSP paprika
2 TSP ground cumin
2 TSP ground fennel (omit if you don’t like the taste of licorice)
2TSP ground mustard
2 TSP red pepper flakes (use less if you want less heat)
1 TBSP ground coriander
1 TBSP turmeric
1 TSP ground cardamom
½ TSP cinnamon
½ TSP ground cloves
Adapted from

Homemade Barbeque Rub (Makes just under ½ c.)
Use on poultry, fish, beef and lamb
2 TBSP paprika
1TBSP chili powder
1TBSP ground cumin
1 TBSP ground thyme
¾ TSP salt
1 ½ TSP garlic powder
1 ½ TSP ground pepper (or less for less heat)
Assemble ingredients. Pat generously on meat before cooking.
Adapted from

Italian Seasoning Blend (Makes about 1 c.)
Use it to season everything Italian or not.
2 TBSP dried basil
2 TBSP dried oregano
2 TBSP dried rosemary
2 TBSP dried marjoram
2 TBSP dried thyme
2TBSP dried cilantro (optional)
2 TBSP dried savory (optional)
2 TBSP red pepper flakes (or less for less heat)
Adapted from