10 Spices You Should Be Using

We normally think of spices as flavors. They make things taste hot or spicy, they add complexity, they combine with other spices to form popular and traditional flavor profiles like “chili powder” or “garam masala,” and they just make food taste really good. This is true, but they are also much more. Like herbs, spices tend to be anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial through self-preservation: when they grow on a plant, they don’t want fungi, bacteria, and insects to eat them, so they employ various compounds that deter and inhibit predators. We can take advantage of these compounds to improve the health effects of foods, make the cooking process safer, reduce the formation of carcinogens, and actually prevent spoilage.

Oh, and spices used correctly make food taste delicious.

I would say that using spices is the quintessential human activity. It’s a perfect example of taking something that is “bad” on paper (antimicrobial compounds, antinutrients meant to kill bugs and fungi) and using it for our own benefit. Let’s get to the point:

Black pepper

Black pepper is not just something that goes with salt. When freshly ground, it is incredibly pungent and even pungent, and has potent effects on lipid oxidation and carcinogen formation.

  • Black pepper extract reduces LDL oxidation in vitro.
  • When fed to pigs, black pepper increases levels of HDL (“good cholesterol,” or at least a marker of good metabolic health).
  • When added to beef patties before cooking, black pepper reduces the formation of heterocyclic amines (a potential carcinogen).

My favorite way to season steak is still salt and lots of black pepper. Nothing else is needed.

Turmeric

Despite its vibrant yellow color, turmeric is actually a fairly mild spice. It’s a little spicy, a little bitter, and certainly has a unique aroma, but on its own it doesn’t taste like much. It is usually combined with other spices to make curry powder.

As a health supplement, it is extremely powerful.

  • Turmeric appears to be effective against arthritis.
  • When added to meat during or before cooking, turmeric reduces the formation of heterocyclic amines.

My favorite way to use turmeric is with black pepper. In fact, black pepper “activates” turmeric, making it much more effective in the body. Soft-boiled eggs mixed with turmeric, black pepper, and salt are a great way to get the health benefits of turmeric without having to cook an elaborate Indian curry.

Cinnamon

There are two types of cinnamon. Ceylon, or true cinnamon, and cassia, which is actually what most of the “cinnamon” sold in the United States is. Both taste like cinnamon and can be used interchangeably in recipes, but Ceylon is more complex, sweeter, and overall more subtle. Personally I prefer Ceylon. It’s also worth noting that cassia has a decent amount of coumarin, which can thin the blood and damage the liver when ingested in excess. If you opt for cassia cinnamon, eat no more than one teaspoon a day.

  • Ceylon is unique because it contains a specific polyphenol that may be effective against Alzheimer’s.
  • Cassia seems best for lowering blood glucose levels, although Ceylon is also useful in this case.
  • Cinnamon in general can be very helpful the morning after a bad night’s sleep by reducing the insulin resistance that normally accompanies lack of sleep.

Cinnamon is an underrated spice for pork.

Saffron

Perhaps the most expensive spice in the world by weight, saffron is derived from the dried stigmas of the Crocus sativus flower. It provides a unique golden hue and a flavor that I can only describe as herbaceous and sweet.

Considering your health aspects:

  • Saffron stands out for its mood-enhancing properties. Studies have indicated its potential effectiveness against depressive symptoms, possibly on par with certain conventional antidepressants.
  • Saffron has proven effective in reducing waist circumference, lowering blood sugar, and improving sexual function.
  • Additionally, saffron could have potential benefits for vision. Certain compounds in saffron appear to protect against age-related macular degeneration.

Use saffron sparingly in dishes such as paella, biryani, or Persian rice. It is also very delicious in chicken broth or soup. You don’t need more than a small pinch to impart color and flavor.

Cumin

Cumin has a long and rich history of culinary and medicinal use. Its distinctively warm, slightly bitter and earthy flavor can be traced back to ancient Egyptian tombs and the kitchens of ancient Rome and Greece and later to the New World.

  • Cumin reduces fat mass, waist circumference, fasting blood sugar and insulin, and improves a number of other metabolic markers in overweight women.
  • Cumin seeds also possess antioxidant properties that help neutralize harmful free radicals in the body.
  • Cumin shows promise in reducing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, according to a recent case series.

While cumin is the cornerstone of many curry and chili powder blends, it is excellent as a stand-alone spice. I highly recommend using whole cumin seeds, roasting them and so grind them to use in spice dressings on lamb or beef.

Peppers

There are many varieties of paprika, but they all come from ground dried peppers. Some are spicy, some mild, some sweet, and some smoky. All of them give the dish a bright red hue, a floral fragrance and a huge antioxidant profile.

  • Paprika is loaded with lutein and zeaxanthin, which can improve cognitive function and eye health.
  • Paprika is known for its antioxidant-rich profile, which reduces the formation of carcinogens during cooking.

I love putting paprika in almost everything. As I said before, there is a paprika for every occasion. Smoked paprika can replicate the smoky flavor of great barbecue. Hot paprika can rival cayenne for sweet spiciness. Sweet paprika is fruity, acidic and bright, while mild paprika is very subtle but can add color and fragrance to a dish.

Sumac

If you need something tart, something citrusy and you don’t have fresh lemon or lime juice and you’d rather not use vinegar, try sumac. This is how the Romans added acid to their dishes before lemons came to the Empire. As a nutraceutical, it is promising.

  • Sumac reduces blood sugar, fasting insulin levels, and insulin resistance, although the results need to be confirmed with further studies.
  • 1000 mg of sumac daily reduces diastolic blood pressure in overweight adults.
  • 2000 mg daily reduces fasting insulin, inflammatory markers, and improves liver fibrosis and liver enzymes in patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Most recipes that include sumac are African or Middle Eastern, but there’s no reason you can’t use it in any dish that needs acidity. Pairs very well with barbecue dressings, lamb or chicken and fish.

Cardamom

Cardamom is known for its intensely aromatic and even “sweet” flavor. There are two types: green and black. Green cardamom is lighter and more delicate, with a sweet eucalyptus note. Black cardamom is more robust and has a smoky character.

It is impressive as a nutraceutical:

  • Cardamom reduces triglycerides and improves the antioxidant status of the liver.
  • Cardamom is widely effective against metabolic syndrome.
  • There is evidence to suggest cardamom’s potential to help lower blood pressure, particularly in people with elevated levels.

Cardamom often appears in desserts of all kinds, but I also like to add a touch to chili. It gives it a really interesting flavor profile.

Cilantro

Coriander is the dried seed of the cilantro plant. The seeds provide a warm, nutty, slightly citrusy flavor that works well in Mexican cooking, marinades, and broths, but tastes almost nothing like the herb cilantro. It also provides some health effects:

  • Coriander seed powder reduces triglycerides and blood pressure in overweight patients.
  • The seeds may also reduce lead-induced oxidative stress in the brain, at least in rats.
  • Coriander may even be effective against anxiety.

Any Mexican cuisine that includes beef almost requires coriander seed to make an appearance. If I’m marinating skirt or flank steak, I include cilantro (along with garlic, lime juice, and cumin).

peppers

Cayenne is a dried hot pepper. It is known for its intense heat, which is due to its high concentration of capsaicin. This bright red spice adds flavor and depth to dishes. The really good thing also has some sweetness. Regarding health effects:

  • Cayenne is a kind of “broad spectrum” nutraceutical, positively affecting almost everything you can imagine.
  • Topical cayenne may even improve wound healing.
  • When added to meat before or during cooking, cayenne inhibits the formation of carcinogens.

Cayenne’s unique spicy profile makes it a perfect complement to spicy dishes. It’s not so spicy that it overwhelms the flavor, but it’s powerful enough to taste even a hint. I really like to finish a dish with a little cayenne.

No spice does it all. Instead of choosing spices based on potential health benefits, choose spices that make the food you’re cooking taste delicious and trust that the benefits will emerge on their own. If there is one lesson to be learned, it is that every culinary spice also has nutritional applications and effects.

What are your favorite spices, friends? How do you like to use them?

Primal Kitchen Challenge 7 days, 7 salads

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather of the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His last book is Keto for life, where he discusses how he combines the ketogenic diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is also the author of many other books, including The primordial modelwhich is credited with fueling the growth of the primal/paleo movement in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating people about why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal well-being, Mark launched Primordial Kitchena real food company creating Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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