Antioxidant-rich kitchen staples such as cinnamon, thyme and peppermint may well be the new superfoods, as their immunity-boosting properties and ability to improve health and well-being are revealed.
The spice is right: how herbs aid health
The problem with diet fads is that they die too young. At the moment when many people had only just mastered the Atkins diet, for example, along came the Low GI diet, encouraging everyone to eat the slow-burning carbs that Dr Atkins had shunned. It's just the same with superfoods. These antioxidant-rich fruits and algae are supposedly so high in vitamins that they've been marketed as something approaching an elixir of youth. But while they are still a relatively new phenomenon, they are now being edged out of fashion by a new group of edible immunity boosters. Superfoods such as Goji berries and pomegranates could soon start to look at a little old hat as old store-cupboard favourites such as cinnamon and thyme come into vogue. Could this year, perhaps, be the year of the superspice?
Spice and herb producers certainly seem to hope so. The seasoning giant McCormick has been hawking research that demonstrates the amazing antioxidant power of spices and herbs. As the study it cites is quite unapologetically presented as coming from the company's research institute, it's tempting to take it all with a massive pinch of (non McCormick brand) salt. Nonetheless, there are in fact many other studies that have confirmed the potential health benefits of spices (many of them, such as the Atkins diet, dating back years) and the figures they reveal can be staggering. While suggesting that a teaspoon of cinnamon may contain more antioxidants than an apple may sound like spice retailers' propaganda, it seems that this improbable-sounding proposition is true. Healthy blackberries, for example, have a substantial 3.990mmol of antioxidants per 100g, but ground cloves offer a massive 125.549. Dried oregano contains 40.299mmol, while turmeric boasts 15.679. Clearly, these foods have such a nutritional punch that they offer far more than just an extra layer of flavour.
The flip side to these remarkable statistics is obvious: there may be far more antioxidants in spices such as cloves, but who would ever eat them in the same quantities as they would fresh fruit? Is it reasonable to compare something you'll eat a bowlful of, like berries, with something that's rarely more than sprinkled? Among the more unpleasant pranks to be found on YouTube is the "Cinnamon challenge", where people try to eat a tablespoon of ground cinnamon without water. The videos of people invariably gagging or sneezing only prove how hard it is to consume the spice in large quantities. So, how could this be a viable way of substantially boosting your antioxidant intake? To complicate the picture, some substances contained in spices, such as the antiseptic Eugenol found in cloves and cinnamon - can damage the liver in large quantities (from 5ml upwards). Bearing all this in mind, are spices as viable an antioxidant source as they might initially seem?
The simple answer is that the antioxidant load present in spices and herbs is so great that even small quantities can make a difference. There's no reason why spices need to be consumed separately to enjoy their health benefits, either - one of the great things about the superspice trend is that spices make everything they are combined with more appetising. While such superfoods as Noni fruit or Acai berries seem to be marketed on the assumption that they are so disgusting that they must be good for you, an extra pinch of cinnamon or sprinkling of oregano can make food taste so good it would be tempting to add them even if they hardened your arteries. Beyond claims for their phenomenal antioxidant potency, spices offer another health benefit that is easier to quantify: as they intensify flavour, they reduce the need to add an excess of sugar or salt.
Of course, herbs and spices have been linked to health in folk medicine for centuries. Typical ingredients of home cold and flu remedies, they are already associated with wellness in many people's minds. Trying to boost children's brain power with breakfasts heavy with the herb and spice mix zaatar is a popular tradition in the Middle East, while the orthodox monks of Greece's Mount Athos attribute part of their remarkable longevity to the high levels of spices in their home-grown diets. While much of their historical reputation may be the product of an age when a belief in herbs supplemented a generally dim understanding of health and medicine, the traditional health-giving reputations of many herbs and spices are increasingly being vindicated.
If you are eating traditional Middle Eastern foods regularly, the chances are that many of your meals will be full of healthy spices and herbs. If you want to boost your spice intake, you could try infusions such as cinnamon tea - boil up some roughly crushed cinnamon sticks with some grated ginger, then strain and serve with honey and lemon. Alternatively, using zaatar as a bread dip or garnish with your meals will also boost your antioxidant intake without the need for much extra effort. While most spices and herbs contain good antioxidant levels, even in their dried, processed form, here is a round-up of ingredients of seven of the best isolated as particularly potent in a recent study.
Popularly misunderstood as a spice blend, this strong peppercorn-like spice is the fruit of a tree indigenous to Central America and the Caribbean. While the dried spice contains an impressive 102mmol of antioxidants per 100g, allspice also has long popularity as a remedy for flatulence and indigestion. Taste-wise, its flavour is complex and delightful, if best in small quantities. Particularly popular in Palestinian cuisine, a personal favourite use is combining ground allspice with hot peppers and citrus juice to make a marinade for barbecued chicken or fish.
This mint-like plant grows wild all around the Mediterranean region and has a pleasant lemony scent not unlike that of geraniums. With a mild antiviral, antibacterial effect beyond its substantial antioxidants, it works well as a simple tea or as an ingredient added to fruit salad or stewed fruit. While it's rarely available in shops, its pleasant scent makes it a perfectly viable candidate for growing in an indoor pot.
One of the most popular culinary and medicinal herbs for millennia, thyme was used by the ancient Egyptians for embalming and by the classical Greeks to scent bath water. Nutrient wise, it has a very high vitamin A, vitamin C, magnesium, calcium and iron content, and is also a good source of vitamin E. It's undeniably strong flavoured but doesn't overpower other herbs or spices in a blend. An essential component of any bouquet garni, it works brilliantly in stews and soups (where it needs slow cooking to draw out its flavour) and as a garnish to red meat.
It's rare that a food can be said to have changed the course of history, but cloves were once so highly valued that getting easy access to them was a major factor in Columbus's first voyage to the New World. Keen to find a route to Indonesia's Spice Islands that avoided Portuguese territory, the Spanish sponsored both Columbus's and Magellan's voyages of discovery, only to find that the American continent infuriatingly got in the way. Since then, they've become rather easier to get hold of, but still boast impressive qualities beyond their aromatic punch. Used in dentistry as a topical painkiller (their methyl salicylate content makes them akin to aspirin) and widely as a digestive aid, cloves contain possibly the highest level of antioxidants of any spice. Unfortunately, they're just too strongly flavoured to be used in large quantities, but work well in small quantities in curries, sweet dishes and as part of spiced tea.
The exceptionally pungent leaves of this shrub can have the unhappy effect of knocking other flavours dead if not used sparingly, one of the reasons the French don't always share the British and Italian affection for it. Still, it boasts high antioxidant levels and a long-standing reputation for healing - in fact its Latin name, salvia, comes from the verb to heal. It can be used to combat anything from sore throats to night sweats.
Packed with resveratol and polyphenols, cinnamon is one of the most antioxidant-rich foods you can find. With several studies showing that it may aid in reducing oxidative stress, it's also popular with people who are trying to lower their blood sugar level. Present in many popular Middle Eastern dishes, cinnamon is one of the most adaptable spices, combining well with chicken and fish as well as improving sweet dishes.
Even more strongly flavoured in its dried form, oregano is pungent enough to stand up to hot spices and tomato without being drowned out. It's also exceedingly good for you: packed as it is with healthy phenolic acids and flavonoids, it's an effective antiseptic, a strong antifungal and has mildly sedative effect in large quantities. Extremely versatile, it goes well with red meats and anything containing tomatoes, while lemon and rosemary is an especially effective seasoning for grilled or roast lamb.
Sometimes described as "the world's oldest medicine", peppermint contains a whopping 79mmol of antioxidants per 100g. So effective is it in combating irritable bowels that peppermint oil is now widely prescribed as a treatment by doctors. Delicious as a tea, in salads, with lamb and as a general garnish on pretty much anything, peppermint is so versatile that it's well worth growing some in a pot for daily use.