Is your spice rack lacking in inspiration (and therapeutic potential)? Take your seasoning game to a whole new level, with flavorful botanicals that do double-duty as powerful healing agents. Toss that faded parsley and past-its-prime paprika, and restock with these 12 must-have herbs and spices for every culinary (and disease-preventive) need.
1. Cardamom. From the seed pods of a plant related to ginger, cardamom is prominent in Indian, Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian cuisine (plus, chai tea). It has an aromatic, slightly sweet flavor that adds earthy notes to both savory and sweet dishes; it pairs especially well with apples, carrots, pears, oranges, lamb and lentils.
Healing highlights. Cardamom is rich in a variety of antioxidant compounds with anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial activities, and research shows it protects against a variety of pathogens, including E. coli, Staphylococcus, Campylobacter and Salmonella—bacteria that cause food poisoning. Cardamom also inhibits C. albicans (candida), fights H. pylori bacteria associated with stomach ulcers, and may treat ulcers as effectively as anti-ulcer medication.
2. Ginger powder. This dried and ground root, from a large family of flowering plants, is key in Asian, Thai and Indian cuisine—and, of course, gingerbread. Its spicy-sweet, pungent flavor is ideal for both sweet and savory dishes, from scones and ice cream to sweet potatoes and salmon, and pairs especially well with vanilla, curry powder and cayenne pepper.
Healing highlights. Traditionally used to enhance digestion and ease stomach upset, ginger is thought to work by blocking serotonin receptors in the stomach and interacting with the central nervous system to reduce queasiness. Research shows ginger is super-effective in preventing nausea caused by motion sickness, pregnancy, even chemotherapy; in some studies, ginger worked better than motion-sickness medication. Ginger’s anti-inflammatory actions have also been shown to ease migraines, relieve pain and decrease stiffness and swelling in arthritis.
3. Oregano. From an herb in the mint family native to the Mediterranean, oregano comes in two varieties: Mediterranean oregano has a floral, mild and sweet flavor with anise undertones. Mexican oregano is more pungent, with grassy, earthier notes. Both are featured in Italian, Greek and Mexican cuisine, and pair especially well with garlic; use them in any tomato-based dish, or added to vinaigrettes, marinades, eggplant, fava beans, peppers, zucchini and cauliflower.
Healing highlights. Oregano is rich in antioxidants, especially carvacrol and thymol—volatile oils that protect cells from free radical damage, fight inflammation and lessen the risk of heart disease and cancer. Both have potent anti-bacterial and anti-viral activities against E. coli, norovirus, herpes simples and dozens of strains of bacteria, and some research suggests oregano extract can block the growth of cancer cells and protect against colon cancer.
4. Cayenne pepper. Made from dried and ground-up red chili peppers, cayenne has a fiery bite that adds neutral flavor and medium heat to any dish. It works especially well in tomato-based dishes like enchilada sauce or salsas, and pairs well with paprika, cumin, garlic and cilantro. Add it to scrambled eggs, pinto beans or hummus, or stir into mayo for a spicy spread.
Healing highlights. Capsaicin, the primary active compound in cayenne, has been shown to increase metabolism, boost fat burning and blunt appetite, possibly by minimizing production of ghrelin, the body’s hunger hormone. Cayenne also has anti-inflammatory properties, and some research suggests capsaicin relaxes blood vessels, lowers blood pressure, protects against stomach ulcers and may reduce the risk of cancer.
5. Rosemary. This member of the mint family is a primary ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine, and its woodsy, pine-like flavor and aroma add layers of complexity to any dish. It works especially well in tomato-based sauces, or with potatoes, white beans, shrimp, mushrooms, onions and peas. Or muddle it with lime and honey, then add sparkling water for an aromatic mocktail.
Healing highlights. Rosemary is rich in carnosol, carnosic acid and rosmarinic acid, powerful antioxidants that have been shown to lower inflammation and suppress allergy symptoms, including nasal congestion. Other research suggest rosemary protects against carcinogens, and marinating meats in rosemary significantly reduces heterocyclic amines (HCAs)—carcinogenic compounds created when meat is broiled or grilled at high temperatures. Rosemary also appears to bind to heavy metals, protecting the brain, and sniffing rosemary essential oil enhances cognition, improves concentration, boosts mood and lessens stress.
6. Cinnamon. From the inner bark of a tropical evergreen, cinnamon comes in two varieties: Cassia, or Chinese cinnamon, is a cheaper—some say inferior—version, with a dark, reddish-brown color and a pungent, spicy flavor. Ceylon (also called “true cinnamon”) from Sri Lanka, is pricier, with a warm, mildly sweet and more complex flavor. Both work well in either sweet or savory dishes; blend cinnamon with cumin, curry or cayenne, and add to curries, rice, or chicken dishes.
Healing highlights. Both varieties of cinnamon contain cinnamaldehyde, an antioxidant with anti-inflammatory activities. Cinnamaldehyde is best known for its ability to manage blood sugar and enhance insulin sensitivity, and some research shows cinnamon can significantly lower blood sugar—in some studies, by as much as 29 percent. Other studies show cinnamaldehyde reduces cholesterol and triglyceride levels and may inhibit the growth of cancer cells.
7. Fennel seeds. These fragrant seeds, from the fennel plant native to Southern Europe and Asia, have an aromatic, mildly sweet flavor reminiscent of licorice. They’re used mostly in Italian, Greek, Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine, and in a variety of sweet and savory dishes and desserts. Use them in breads, or in pork, sausage or bean dishes, or add to roasted beets, parsnips, kohlrabi or Brussel sprouts.
Healing highlights. Fennel is rich in a variety of volatile compounds, including anethole, limonene, fenchone and methyl chavicol—antioxidants with anti-inflammatory and antibacterial benefits. Anethole in particular has potent cancer-preventive effects, and research suggests fennel extract can suppress cell growth, promote apoptosis (cancer cell death) and protect against breast and liver cancer. Fennel extract also inhibits the growth of pathogens, including C. albicans and E. coli, promotes cognitive health, and may relieve hot flashes, sleep disturbances and other symptoms of menopause.
8. Cumin. From the dried seeds of an herb in the parsley family, cumin has a warm, earthy flavor and distinctive aroma, and is common in Indian, Mexican and Middle Eastern cuisine. You’ll find it in ground versions and as whole seeds; add it to salsa, couscous, lentils or lamb dishes.
Healing highlights. Antioxidant compounds, called apigenin and luteolin, in cumin have anti-inflammatory and antiseptic actions to fight parasites and bacteria. Cumin is also considered a potent cancer-preventive spice, and some research suggests cumin seed extract can block cancer cell proliferation, and may protect against colon and other forms of cancer. Other studies show cumin can normalize blood sugar, lower cholesterol, enhances memory and ease symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), including gas, bloating, nausea and cramps.
9. Turmeric. This bright-orange powder, made from a dried and ground root related to ginger, has a pungent, earthy flavor with bitter-sweet undertones. It’s the primary ingredient in curry blends, and features prominently in Indian, South Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine. Add it to rice, frittatas, sautéed greens, sweet potato soup, or roasted cauliflower or pumpkin. Or try it in sweet dishes, especially paired with ginger, coconut or vanilla.
Healing highlights. Turmeric is rich in active compounds, especially curcumin—a potent antioxidant that’s been demonstrated to relieve inflammation and pain. Curcumin works in a similar way as drugs used for arthritis, and research shows curcumin is as effective at treating joint pain and swelling as some anti-inflammatory drugs. Other studies suggest curcumin can improve cognition, ease depression and protect against Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
10. Thyme. A member of the mint family, thyme has a bright flavor and fragrant, floral aroma, and is common in French, Italian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. Thyme pairs especially well with carrots, Brussels sprouts, white fish and beef; or try lemon thyme—a variety with subtle citrus undertones—in sweet dishes, like orange sorbet, strawberry jam or poached pears.
Healing highlights. Thyme is rich in carvacrol (also in oregano), thymol and other antioxidants with anti-inflammatory benefits. Some research shows thyme extract impacts brain neurons in a way that improves mood and enhances well-being. Thyme is also used to relieve inflammation of the respiratory tract, treat bronchitis and ease coughs and congestion. And other studies suggest thyme extract can reduce high blood pressure and lower cholesterol levels.
11. Cloves. From the dried flower buds of an evergreen native to Indonesia, cloves have a pungent, spicy-sweet flavor that’s used in a variety of cuisines, from Chinese to German. They’re best used in flavorful recipes, in small amounts; their pronounced taste can easily overtake delicate dishes. Cloves add warmth and complexity to both sweet and savory dishes; add them to baked ham, roasted winter squash, cream soups and chutneys. Or pair cloves with cinnamon, vanilla and star anise in sweet dishes, like apple tarts, pumpkin pie or butter cookies.
Healing highlights. Cloves are rich in eugenol, an antioxidant with powerful anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial actions. In studies, eugenol has been shown to halt the growth of bacteria and a variety of pathogens, including C. albicans, E. coli and bacteria that contribute to gum disease. Other research suggests cloves can improve insulin resistance, protect against cardiovascular disease, keep blood sugar under control and support bone strength and density.
12. Sage. These sturdy leaves, from an herb in the mint family, are key players in Mediterranean cuisine. Sage has an earthy flavor with grassy-herbal notes and undertones of eucalyptus; you’ll find it several versions—as dried leaves, ground or rubbed. Sage works best in highly seasoned soups and stews, where its robust flavor won’t overwhelm; add it to pumpkin soup, meatballs, risotto, sautéed red cabbage, roasted potatoes or quiche.
Healing highlights. Sage is rich in a variety of antioxidants, including rosmarinic acid, carnosol and carnosic acid (like rosemary), with potent anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial activities. Sage has also been shown to benefit brain health, enhancing mood, alertness, memory and cognitive function; in some studies, sage extract improved problem solving, reasoning and other cognitive abilities in patients with Alzheimer’s. And other research suggests sage can lower cholesterol, balance blood sugar and protect against liver, colon, breast, mouth, cervix and other cancers.