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The hidden health power of spices and herbs is revealed in recent studies

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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herbsBOSTON—As most of us learned in school, fruit is delicious because it evolved to be eaten—if plants can entice animals to eat their seeds, they’ll be spread far and wide in handy packets of fertilizer. But spices are different. Spices and herbs such as thyme, oregano, turmeric and cinnamon get their singular flavors from compounds that are actually toxic in concentrated doses—and plants probably evolved to express these toxins so their leaves and berries would not be eaten. So why do we humans cultivate them and put them all over our food? Nobody knows for sure, but as explained today in a presentation here at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science, scientists are starting to discover a whole host of health benefits from common herbs and spices—and it’s possible that we humans evolved a taste for these toxic compounds because they help our bodies function better.

Spices top the list of foods rich in antioxidants, explained Marianne Gillette, a vice president at McCormick & Company, whose background is in experimental taste research. One half teaspoon of ground cinnamon has as many antioxidants as a half cup of blueberries; a half teaspoon of dried oregano rivals three cups of raw spinach.

And the health benefits go far beyond antioxidants. A U.C.L.A. paper published May 9 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that adding a mixture of herbs and spices to hamburgers reduced the level of carcinogenic compounds created by grilling—such as the dangerous malondialdehyde that forms when beef fat oxidizes. Malondialdehyde damages DNA in cells, which is thought to lead to replication errors and possibly cancer. Not only did the burgers with the spice mixture—a palatable blend of oregano, rosemary, ginger, black pepper and others—have lower levels of malondialdehyde when tested in the lab, but subjects who ate the spiced burgers had fewer DNA breaks in their cells afterwards.

Of course, the healthfulness of spices and herbs is nothing new to some—traditional medicine all over the world has been using them in remedies for millennia. Although many such uses have yet to be validated by experimental studies, new benefits are being suggested by studies all the time. Take ginger—three University of Georgia pilot studies (not yet published) suggest that eating a small amount of ginger daily for 11 days or more can reduce muscle pain and inflammation after exercise.

The U.C.L.A. and Georgia studies were funded by the McCormick Science Institute, the spice company’s research arm dedicated to performing and funding studies on the biophysiological effects of the spices it sells. Obviously McCormick hopes to benefit if people start eating more spices in the interest of health. But the work they fund represents only a small fraction of the dozens of studies appearing independently from research institutions around the world—Italian researchers found that saffron improves vision in the elderly; Thai scientists showed that ginger aids digestion—adding to a growing body of work suggesting that spicing things up a little adds more than just flavor.

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  1. 1. bio freak 6:35 am 05/31/2010

    thanks,this was really useful

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  2. 2. JamesDavis 6:51 am 05/31/2010

    Commission E in Germany has a ton load of research on medical herbs and spices. About all their doctors prescribe medical herbs instead of chemical medicines and as you can tell from watching television news articles, the Germans are a fit bunch of people. And other countries who use herbs as medicine, like India, Italy, and France are very healthy with little to no cancer, allergies, or obesity.

    "Be Kind To The Earth For It Is Our Best Medicine", -Jim Green-

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  3. 3. jbairddo 8:50 am 05/31/2010

    Wow, last week we had the how bad and useless are herbs article by Katherine Harmon and now the how great they are by Karen Schrock, must be fun to watch these two at lunch in the corporate cafeteria. The list drugs that have come from herbs or other plants is probably longer than I can recall but here it is
    Vincristine/vinblastine- leukemia drug -periwinkle
    opioids- pain meds-poppy
    aspirin-anti-inflammatory-willow bark
    digitalis-heart drug-fox glove
    scopolamine-anticholinergic drug-potatoes for one
    quinine-leg cramps, heart regulator-chinchona tree
    cocaine-anesthetic-coca plant
    and there are probably more than I can recall here, but the arrogance of the medicine is king and alternative stuff is garbage crowd is pretty amazing, maybe they think all the good drugs have already been made from plants.

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  4. 4. Ailblentyn 9:02 am 05/31/2010

    Spices top the list of foods rich in antioxidants, explained Marianne Gillette, a vice president at McCormick & Company..
    As in McCormick Spices perhaps? Please.

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  5. 5. Davy 9:31 am 05/31/2010

    Ailblentyn, it may protect you from appearing foolish (if that concerns you) to read to the end of the story before succumbing to the compulsion to voice your opinion: The author explicity states the marketing connection. Healthy skepticism is one thing, but to dismiss a claim as factually incorrect solely on the basis of its proponents’ motivations is unscientific at best.

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  6. 6. EricD123 10:12 am 05/31/2010

    Didn’t SA have an article just a few days ago slamming natural healing and herbal medicines based on "scientific" research from the pharmaceutical community? Now that McCormick Spices is getting in on the game, it now sounds reasonable to them? Wow, spice companies trump pharmaceuticals.

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  7. 7. Johnay 12:03 pm 05/31/2010

    Alternative medicine after it’s been thoroughly and properly tested and found to be safe and effective: Medicine.

    Alternative medicine after it’s been thoroughly and properly tested and found to be unsafe or ineffective: Snake Oil.

    Other alternative medicine: Cross your fingers and hope it’s not the latter of the above.

    @jbairddo: It’s absolutely true that many drugs have been developed from natural compounds, often originally identified via local folklore. But be aware that there have been many failures by that route as well. In the end, it’s proper scientific "does it *really* work" testing that must be trusted to pick out the effective remedies from the placebos and dangerous distractions.

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  8. 8. Johnay 12:06 pm 05/31/2010

    I see nothing inconsistent about "slamming" natural remedies that are scientifically found to be unsafe or ineffective, while praising natural remedies that are scientifically found to be safe and effective.

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  9. 9. dskan 1:46 pm 05/31/2010

    Clearly none of these researchers learned any evolutionary biology. Or the author. It is a nonsequitur to introduce the evolutionary origins of fruit with the ad hoc benefits of spices. I find it difficult to believe people started cultivating spices to offset the malondialdehyde in charred meat. If the spices are toxic, then it is far more likely that we evolved to eat them to aid our immune systems. And it’s even more likely that we eat them because they’re delicious… but that doesn’t make for a good story.

    The problem with most researchers (they’re not actually scientists) is that things have to have a reason in order to be interesting, even when the null hypothesis of neutrality is perfectly reasonable and valid. Most scientists, journalists, administrators, even some reputable ones, have a hard time with the concept that just because we can ascribe a benefit, doesn’t mean it ‘evolved’. That’s a rabidly reductionist and neo-Darwinist perspective, and usually false.

    The prime example of this is antioxidants. Enough with the antioxidants already! That bandwagon is SO 2009. One of my favourite studies had the abstract, "This bird has blue feet so we tested its antioxidant status". wait, what?

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  10. 10. Elby23 2:17 pm 05/31/2010

    Excellent, informative article. Thank you! In my more cynical moments, I wonder how long it will take the big pharmaceuticals to be successful in their push to relabel many natural botanics as ‘drugs’ and thus only available by prescription and/or through pharma distribution channels . . .

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  11. 11. EricD123 2:50 pm 05/31/2010

    You have a very good point, Johnay, and perhaps I was to0 flip in my comment. My underlying sentiment is that it is not necessarily scientific because pharma supports a medication, nor because a spice company sponsors research showing that their spices are healthy. Pharma and Spice both have too much money at stake to be counted on to do honest, objective research.

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  12. 12. jtdwyer 6:43 pm 05/31/2010

    Elby23 – It’ll take no time at all. Recovering from an extended illness an chemo side effects, I was prescribed high doses of what is essentially fish oil: refined Omega-3 fatty acids, to lower triglycerides. Within a week I noticed a definitive, significant improvement in my ability to focus and concentrate.

    The branded product (now frequently advertised on TV) is at least very similar to over the counter Omega-3 dietary supplements, although the more expensive prescription medication promises consistent quality control, etc. By the way, my copayment for the prescription medication is less than cost of OTC product. I can’t attest to the reported neurological benefits of Omega-3 products, but I can for the prescription medication.

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  13. 13. jtdwyer 7:20 pm 06/1/2010

    Goodeats – I guess for comparison purposes I should mention that I’m taking 2 grams of ‘highly refined’ fish oil daily and as near as I can tell the retail price for this dosage of this product is $100/30 days. I can’t substantiate vendor claims of superiority over OTC Omega-3 fatty acid products, but neither would I expect that identical dosage of OTC products provide identical results. Your mileage may vary…

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  14. 14. marysc 9:33 pm 06/2/2010

    Why is it that so much of my tax money goes to testing and regulating (an generally approving) Big Pharma products, but none can go to testing and regulating herbal medicines and spices and supplements? The govt makes its business to test and approve vegetables, candy and meat – why not herbs and supplements?? Because they don’t have enough lobbyists handing out buckets of money?

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  15. 15. sunnystrobe 12:42 pm 06/3/2010

    A propos: Omega3:
    Why not go for the naturally grown, living food with the highest omega3 quantum – which is also the cheapest at a around 3 Dollars per KILOgram?
    It’s flaxseed, and can be soaked in fresh water in your musli bowl the night before the morning after, ready to be spiced with cinnamon , orange peel etc. to be fit for a downright designer muesli! See w.w.w. youthevity

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  16. 16. sunnystrobe 1:03 pm 06/3/2010

    Dscan: Don’t throw out the antioxidants with last year’s calendar – or you’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater! Research has shown that colour pigments in birds etc. are a clear sign of an intact immune system!
    Also, DNA evidence of plant spices were found at Neandertal sites; to me, this is clear evidence that we originally evolved as plant eaters ; for no self-respecting carnivore- cat or otherwise-would ever spice their meat with added herbs! For an evolutionary, colour-coded approach to our human diet, visit http://www.youthevity. com

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  17. 17. verdai 7:03 pm 06/7/2010

    Yes.
    wonders of the World.

    (hope this doesn’t conflict with its accompanying article.

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  18. 18. Neptunerover 1:22 am 06/11/2010

    Evolved a taste for them because they help our bodies? I disagree. Why would we try them in the first place if there was not something desirable about them?

    I think the use of stronger, hotter spices developed in warmer parts of the world because meat spoils quicker there. I don’t think spices were initially developed just to add flavor to anything that was already good. Spices first came about for covering up the bad flavors of rotting meat and other less flavorful things, like the parts of animals that don’t taste so good on their own.

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