Sprinkling a little cayenne into your gumbo could be doing more than adding a little heat to the flavor.
Such spices could also work to bolster your health.
Researchers are studying whether culinary seasonings can be used like medicine to boost your metabolism, clean your mouth and reduce inflammation in the body.
“We think of seasonings like ginger and turmeric and cumin as food seasonings, but in ages past, that was what medicine was,” said chef Michael Ciuffetti, an instructor at the Louisiana Culinary Institute.
So here’s what the chef — who teamed up for a presentation with the Botanical Dietary Supplements Research Center at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center — says 40 years of cooking have taught him about spices and the effect they can have on your health:
Peppers boost metabolism
Both chile peppers and cayenne contain capsaicin, a compound that gives the peppers their burn and helps your body burn fat.
“It helps crank up your body’s thermostat, firing up your metabolism and helping you burn extra fat and calories,” Ciuffetti said.
To add this fat-torching spice to your diet, Ciuffetti recommended stirring a little cayenne into store-bought hummus, sprinkling it on popcorn or adding a dash to mashed avocado before spreading it on whole wheat toast.
Nutmeg combats germs
While nutmeg tastes a bit sweet, research shows it can fight cavities.
“Your mouth is a hotbed of bacteria, and nutmeg fights the germs with antibacterial compounds,” Ciuffetti said.
Compounds such as macelignan work by reducing plaque in your mouth.
Adding one-fourth teaspoon of nutmeg to your morning coffee can help you reap the benefits, the chef said.
Ginger fights inflammation, nausea
A dominant flavor in various Asian cuisines, ginger can fight inflammation and relieve upset stomachs.
In a University of Miami study of ginger’s effect on osteoarthritis knee pain, the plant rivaled drugs like ibuprofen for relieving pain caused by inflammation, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
And anyone who has relied on a bottle of ginger ale to soothe a sour stomach knows its nausea-fighting properties.
Ciuffetti’s carrot ginger soup features plenty of grated ginger for a spicy, healthful meal.
Cinnamon may lower blood sugar
Cinnamon and sugar are thought of as a natural pair. But several studies show that cinnamon actually fights sugar.
Cinnamon lowers the body’s blood glucose level a modest amount and increases the potency of insulin, both positives for diabetics or people fighting the onset of Type 2 diabetes.
While one to two teaspoons of cinnamon a day are beneficial, using more could be too much of a good thing, said Catherine Champagne, a researcher at the Pennington.
“I don’t think it will kill you,” she said, “but you may be stressing your body too much to produce positive benefits.”
Turmeric battles free radicals, inflammation
A distinctive spice used in Indian food, turmeric does more than flavor a curry.
Turmeric is a strong antioxidant that fights free radicals, molecules that can damage cells.
And in studies on rats exposed to cancer-causing substances, turmeric protected them from certain types of cancer, according to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. There are other uses as well.
“People are using dried turmeric as a paste for arthritis,” Ciuffetti said. “There are a lot of studies to be done, but this is an age-old art. It’s flavorful, but you are ingesting those medical benefits as well.”