Herbs and Spices Do More Than Taste Good

By Barbara Quinn
The Monterey County (Calif.) Herald
Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Q: What is the difference between an herb and a spice?

A: According to the International Food Information Council, an herb is the leaf of a plant that is used for its "aromatic" properties. Spices are seasonings from other parts of plants, such as cinnamon bark, clove buds, cumin seeds and ginger root.

Besides flavoring food, herbs and spices historically have been used as preservatives, the IFIC says. Maybe they can help preserve our health as well.

Q: Does cinnamon help people with diabetes?

A: Some studies have shown that cinnamon might help lower blood glucose levels and might improve blood cholesterol levels. Other studies are not so sure. At any rate, cinnamon tastes good, is safe to use and provides great flavor to food (I like to sprinkle it over ground coffee before brewing) with no added calories or carbohydrates to raise blood sugar levels.

Q: Does ginger settle a sick tummy?

A: My mom used to give me ginger ale when I had a stomach ache. The IFIC says that ginger has been shown to help treat nausea, especially nausea due to pregnancy. Ginger has also exhibited some usefulness in the treatment of such inflammatory conditions as arthritis.

Studies on animals have also shown that ginger's main ingredient, gingerol, might protect against certain types of cancer.

Q: Is curry a health food?

A: Turmeric is a spice found in curry powder that gets its yellow color from a pigment called curcumin. In fact, says the IFIC, curcumin is used as a spice as well as a preservative and coloring agent in foods. Curcumin is also a potent antioxidant and is being studied for its potential protective role against Alzheimer's disease.

Q: Does red pepper do more than just make me sweat?

A: Sure does, the IFIC says. When we sweat after eating red-hot chili peppers, we burn more calories and fat. It's due to the activity of capsaicin, the active ingredient that makes hot foods hot. Some studies show that capsaicin not only makes us sizzle, it also helps us feel more satisfied after eating, which might keep us from overeating. Pass the chili, please.

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