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Ranking Spices by How Healthy They Are

Turmeric? Cumin? Saffron? Which is most likely to turn this tuna salad into a superfood?

I already ranked herbs, so now I’ve decided to take a look at their remarkably pungent kitchen cupboard brethren: Spices. I know, herbs and spices are often intermingled on the spice rack, so they might seem one in the same, but they are indeed different — herbs are the leafy parts of a plant, whereas spices come from roots, stems, seeds, fruits, flowers and even barks.

Most cooks (at home or otherwise) choose which spices they add to a dish based on the flavor they hope to achieve, but spices are also dense sources of various healthy compounds, and you might be inclined to choose one over another depending on your health goals. Sure, the small amounts of spices we consume might seem negligible compared to whatever we use them to season, but evidence suggests that, when consumed regularly over long periods of time, they can actually make a huge impact on how long and how well we live, which is, y’know, kinda important.

That being the case, I asked nutritionist David Friedman, author of Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction, to help me rank some of the most common spices by how healthy they are — from super freaking healthy to not worth the money.

Here’s what he came up with… 

1) Garlic: “Number one on my list is garlic,” Friedman says. “In 460 B.C., Hippocrates, the father of medicine, prescribed garlic to treat a variety of medical conditions. Fast-forward to 2019, and modern science confirms garlic can treat everything from the common cold to dementia and cardiovascular disease. It can even help in the prevention of cancer.”

“The magic compound responsible for garlic’s immune-boosting properties is called allicin,” Friedman continues. “This is produced when garlic is crushed or chopped, and research suggests that allicin in garlic may help regulate blood pressure just as effectively as hypertension medication. Consuming garlic also helps reduce cholesterol. In fact, garlic has been found to be a safer alternative to conventional cholesterol-lowering medications.”

Garlic is diabetic-friendly, too. “If you have blood sugar concerns, add some garlic to your stir-fry,” Friedman suggests. “People with type 2 diabetes that consume garlic for two to three months have shown significant reductions in their fasting blood glucose levels.”

It’s good for your heart as well. “Diallyl trisulfide, another healthful component of garlic, helps protect the heart — so much so, researchers at Emory University School of Medicine believe diallyl trisulfide could be used as a treatment for heart failure,” Friedman explains. “In animal studies, researchers found, after experiencing a heart attack, mice that had received diallyl sulfide had 61 percent less heart damage. In another study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, scientists found that garlic may help protect diabetic patients from heart disease.”

“Garlic is also a great source of vitamin B6 (brain development and mood), manganese (bone health and metabolism), vitamin C (immune-boosting properties) and selenium (thyroid health, bone health and immune-boosting properties),” Friedman continues. “Additionally, garlic contains antioxidants that protect against cell damage and aging. It may also reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Finally, let’s not forget the most powerful benefit of garlic: It makes Italian dishes taste amazing!”

2) Turmeric: Turmeric has been used for 4,000 years as a preventive and healing agent,” Friedman says. “It’s the main spice in curry and considered one of the most powerful healing spices on the planet. Turmeric has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal and anti-cancer properties.”

“There are currently 5,038 [and counting] peer-reviewed published studies on the health benefits of turmeric and it’s active substance, which is called curcumin,” Friedman continues. “This primary constituent of turmeric is a powerful antioxidant and has been shown to reduce levels of inflammation in the body. Scientists now believe that inflammation plays a major role in almost every chronic, Western disease — this includes cardiovascular disease, cancer, metabolic syndrome, Alzheimer’s and various degenerative diseases.”

Friedman has some personal experience using turmeric. “During my 30-year practice,” he explains, “I’ve treated thousands of patients with back and neck pain. While many people choose to use prescription pain pills and over-the-counter medications, long-term use of these drugs can have many negative side effects. Instead, I recommend that my patients take turmeric. It’s comparable to powerful corticosteroids and prescription anti-inflammatory drugs without the negative side effects.”

Turmeric is great for your joints, too. “Arthritis can be relieved by using turmeric thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties and its ability to improve circulation to the joints, boost the healing process and inhibiting prostaglandins, the hormones in our body that produce pain,” explains Friedman. “Studies suggest that turmeric promotes a normal inflammatory response by inhibiting the expression of the COX-2 ‘pain’ enzyme. Turmeric’s anti-inflammatory properties can also help lower the risk of heart attacks by as much as 65 percent. Studies show turmeric reduces cholesterol levels and prevents LDL (bad) cholesterol from building up in blood vessels. By preventing atherosclerosis, this can drastically reduce a person’s risk of having a heart attack or stroke. A compelling study published in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism found that a daily dose of turmeric extract significantly improved the functional state of the blood vessels of adults within just eight weeks. Also, if you’re concerned about your blood sugar, add more turmeric to your diet, as it may help prevent type 2 diabetes.”

As for how to add more turmeric to your diet, here’s Friedman’s advice. “Turmeric supplements aren’t easily absorbed by the body, so I recommend finding one that contains piperine, a chemical found in black pepper that has been shown to increase curcumin absorption by up to 2,000 percent,” he says. “You can also increase absorption in the stomach by taking a turmeric supplement with a healthy fat, like salmon, dark chocolate, flaxseed oil, coconut milk, almond butter or any high-quality nut butter.”

3) Ginger: “Ginger is a popular spice that’s been used in various forms of traditional and alternative medicine for thousands of years,” says Friedman. “It’s high in gingerol, a substance that has powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.”

Chronically nauseous folks, take heed: “Ginger has a long history of use as a seasickness remedy and is more effective than anti-nausea medication,” Friedman explains. “In addition to being a great remedy for nausea and vomiting, ginger also helps relieve morning sickness.”

Much like turmeric, ginger is great for soothing sore joints. “Ginger is a spice I recommend to my patients who workout, because it can help reduce muscle pain and soreness after exercising and can even decrease joint pain,” Friedman explains. “Ginger has also been shown to lower blood sugar levels and improve various heart disease risk factors in patients with type 2 diabetes.”

“Out of all the spices on the list, ginger wins when it comes to stomach or gastrointestinal relief,” Friedman continues. “Ginger stimulates saliva and bile production and suppresses gastric contractions as foods and fluids move through the GI tract. When you eat food, ginger helps increase secretion of the enzymes trypsin and pancreatic lipase, which help improve the motility of food through the digestive tract. This suggests that ginger could help prevent colon cancer.”

As a quick aside, there’s a good reason why sushi is always served with a side of ginger. “First, it helps cleanse the palate before sampling another piece of sushi, and second, ginger’s antibacterial effects help to protect you from bacteria that may be in the raw fish.” Friedman explains. “Ginger also accelerates emptying of the stomach by 50 percent, which explains why you can eat so much food at the all-you-can-eat sushi buffet. If you have enough room for an unhealthy dessert, have no fear: Ginger consumption helps significantly reduce LDL cholesterol and blood triglyceride levels.”

4) Cumin: “Not to be confused with curcumin, the active compound found in turmeric, cumin is a popular spice in the Middle East, India and some parts of the Mediterranean,” says Friedman. “Cumin is chewed as a digestive aid and often served at Indian restaurants at the completion of a meal for this purpose. Research confirms cumin boosts the activity of digestive enzymes and may be an effective treatment for irritable bowel syndrome. Additionally, cumin has been widely used in traditional medicine to treat a variety of diseases, ranging from improved cholesterol levels to promoting weight loss, as well as helping in the prevention of diabetes and cancer.

“Cumin is extremely rich in iron,” Friedman continues, “containing 1.4 milligrams of iron per teaspoon, or 17.5 percent of the recommended daily intake for adults. Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies, affecting up to 20 percent of the world’s population. Iron is an important component of hemoglobin, the substance in red blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs to transport it throughout your body.”

Cumin is also high in several super healthy compounds. “Cumin contains a plethora of other healthful plant compounds, including terpenes, phenols, flavonoids and alkaloids,” explains Friedman. “These have been shown to help improve brain function, boost the immune system and even help prevent diabetes and fight cancer. If you’re trying to lose weight, add cumin to your diet: Cumin has been found to help with successful weight loss in multiple studies.”

5) Cardamom: “Cardamom is a spice with an intense, slightly sweet flavor that some people compare to mint,” Friedman explains. “Cardamom is extremely rich in manganese: It supplies 80 percent of the recommended value in a single tablespoon. Manganese helps with protein and amino acid digestion and utilization, as well as the metabolism of cholesterol and carbohydrates.

As for other nutrients, “Cardamom is also a good source of fiber, iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, vitamin A and zinc,” Friedman says. “It’s also chock-full of powerful antioxidants that have been shown to reduce inflammation, the underlying cause of many chronic diseases.”

“Cardamom can help reduce blood pressure, lower blood sugar, heal stomach ulcers and combat cancer,” continues Friedman. “If you’re into aromatherapy, add some cardamom to your infuser. Smelling it may help improve blood circulation to the lungs and improve breathing for those suffering with asthma and bronchitis. Cardamom aromatherapy may also help reduce stress.”

It can keep you slim as well. “Cardamom helps reduce water retention and bloating, which can cause weight gain,” Friedman says. “Because cardamom is a natural diuretic, it can help the body expel extra water that’s being retained. In fact, researchers found cardamom’s effects are comparable to a standard prescription diuretic.”

“Cardamom shows promise as a potential natural cancer treatment,” Friedman continues. “Several animal studies have shown that consuming this spice helps reduce the occurrence of tumors. This spice also possesses powerful healing effects against colorectal cancer.”

6) Coriander: “Coriander is a seed spice that’s been cultivated since ancient times,” Friedman says. “It’s very often confused with cilantro, because they both come from the same plant — when the leaves are used in their fresh form, that’s cilantro, but when the dried seeds are used, that’s coriander.”

“One of the most impressive health benefits of coriander is its effect on gut health and digestion,” Friedman continues. “Coriander functions very similar to an antispasmodic drug, relaxing contracted digestive muscles that can lead to irritable bowel syndrome. Research published in Digestive Diseases and Sciences evaluated the effects of taking coriander versus a placebo: After eight weeks, those taking the coriander showed a significantly lower severity and frequency of abdominal pain and discomfort. Coriander stimulates natural production of bile from the liver and enzymes from the pancreas, enhancing overall digestion.”

Coriander is yet another diabetic-friendly spice. “This powerful spice helps to stimulate the secretion of insulin,” Friedman explains. “One study showed that this spice improves carbohydrate metabolism and increases hypoglycemic action in rats. In addition to blood sugar regulating, coriander may also help to improve cholesterol levels. In fact, research has shown a significant decrease in bad (or LDL) cholesterol and an increase in healthy (or HDL) cholesterol among subjects who consumed coriander seeds.”

It helps with menstruation, too. “If you’re suffering from cramping, bloating or pain during your menstrual cycle, reach for some coriander,” Friedman suggests. “It may help support healthy menstrual function by helping regulate proper endocrine gland function and the hormones that regulate menstrual cycles.”

“In addition to wearing sunblock to protect you from the dangerous rays of the sun,” Friedman continues, “a study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food examined the ability of coriander’s effects on protecting skin against damage caused by UVB radiation. Researchers concluded that it may help slow skin aging.”

7) Cinnamon: “I’m a big fan of cinnamon,” Friedman admits. “I add a sprinkle to my coffee, tea, whole-grain pancakes and on top of baked sweet potatoes. But beyond tasting great, cinnamon has incredibly potent antioxidant properties. In fact, The Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry lists cinnamon at the top when comparing the antioxidant activity of 26 spices.”

There are two main types of cinnamon: Ceylon and cassia. “Cassia cinnamon is cheaper and lower quality compared to Ceylon,” Friedman explains. “Most of the cinnamon found in supermarkets is the cassia variety, but ceylon cinnamon is much higher in eugenol, which has antimicrobial, antiviral, antiseptic and anesthetic properties. It helps with everything from gum infections to colds and coughs, and it even helps alleviate pain due to severe skin burns. Ceylon cinnamon also contains much more linalool than the cassia variety — linalool is a critical component in the production of vitamin E (which is needed for eyes, as well as the health of our blood, brain and skin). It can also help reduce stress, anxiety and insomnia.”

“Ceylon and cassia are both beneficial for diabetics,” Friedman continues. “Animal and lab studies show that ceylon may reduce blood sugar spikes, increase insulin sensitivity and improve metabolic markers associated with insulin resistance. Research on cassia has also shown significant reductions in fasting blood sugar levels after consuming this form of cinnamon.”

Friedman does, however, suggesting going easy on the cassia variety. “It’s high in coumarin, which can be toxic in large quantities,” he warns. “If you regularly eat a lot of cinnamon or take a supplement that contains it, go with a ceylon variety.”

A quick warning: “I do want to mention that you should never take a spoonful of cinnamon, made popular by the viral internet cinnamon challenge,” Friedman emphasizes. “The objective of the challenge is to film oneself eating a spoonful of ground cinnamon in under 60 seconds without drinking anything. While this has resulted in some hilarious videos, doing so can cause severe throat irritation, breathing difficulties and increased risk of pneumonia or a collapsed lung.”


8) Allspice: “Allspice is a single spice made from dried berries of the allspice tree, which look like peppercorns,” Friedman explains. “This tree is native to Jamaica and was discovered by Christopher Columbus during his second voyage to the New World. The Europeans thought it combined the flavors of several spices, and they introduced it into European and Mediterranean cuisines.”

In terms of health benefits, Friedman says, “Allspice contains eugenol, which may help combat certain bacteria, viruses and fungi. Research shows that several compounds abundantly found in allspice, namely quercetin, gallic acid and ericifolin, have antitumor activities. This shows promise for allspice being used as a preventative agent for chronic diseases and malignant cancers.”

In addition to boasting several other vitamins and minerals, Friedman explains, “Allspice also contains a significant amount of iron, which helps aid in normal hemoglobin production and increased blood flow. Proper amounts of oxygen and iron in the brain lead to increased cognitive performance and a decrease in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.”

“One of the most impressive health benefits of consuming allspice,” Friedman continues, “is its ability to lower inflammation and alleviate pain in parts of the body. This makes it a great spice to reach for if you’re suffering from arthritis, gout, muscle aches or even hemorrhoids.”

9) Paprika: “Paprika is a ground up, dried spice made from a large variety of peppers in the capsicum family,” Friedman says. “Paprika is a rich source of antioxidants, which have been shown to fight oxidative stress in the body. Paprika gets its reddish color from beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, as well as lutein and zeaxanthin. These constituents have many benefits including, anti-inflammatory and immune boosting properties. Lutein and zeaxanthin also play a role in the health of the eyes, protecting them from macular degeneration.”

“There are many antioxidants in paprika, including carotenoids,” Friedman continues. “This is a type of pigment that acts as an antioxidant in the body and prevents damage from oxidative stress, caused by an overabundance of free radicals, which is linked to many diseases. Another powerful ingredient in paprika is capsaicin, which may help to combat autoimmune conditions and has the potential for treating and/or preventing cancer.”

Once again, this spice is totally diabetic-friendly. “Like many other spices, paprika may also help regulate blood sugar levels,” Friedman confirms. “Spicing up your food with paprika could also benefit your heart thanks to a carotenoid called capsanthin, which causes an increase in (good) HDL cholesterol.”

10) Saffron: “Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world: One pound can sell for as much as $5,000,” Friedman says. “Because this spice comes in at number 10 on my rankings, that puts to rest the old myth, ‘More expensive means it’s better.’ The reason saffron costs so much is because of its time-consuming, labor-intensive harvesting methods.”

Despite being last on our list, saffron still boasts some nice benefits. “Saffron is a mood-boosting spice that has been used for the treatment of mild to moderate depression,” Friedman explains. “In fact, it’s been found to be just as effective as conventional antidepressants. Saffron has also been shown to help treat PMS symptoms, such as irritability, cravings, headaches and cramps.”

It can slim you down, too. “If you’re searching for a way to curb your appetite and lose some unwanted belly fat, you could give saffron a try,” says Friedman. “Research shows that it may help prevent snacking between meals and reduce body mass index as well as waist circumference. Scientists are unclear exactly how saffron curbs appetite and aids in weight loss, but one theory is because saffron elevates mood, which in turn reduces the desire to eat. My theory is that saffron costs so much, so people have no money left to buy food.”

“Saffron has been linked to several other potential health benefits,” Friedman continues,  “such as improved heart disease risk, blood sugar levels, eyesight and memory. However, consuming too much saffron can be toxic: It’s best to stay below 1.5 grams per day. Also, if you’re pregnant, you may want to avoid this spice, because too much of it can cause a miscarriage.”

A quick tip: “Saffron is sold as threads or in powdered form,” Friedman explains. “It’s best to go for threads, because the powdered form isn’t as pure and is commonly adulterated.”

And that’s it for now! I have to go drink a whole tube of toothpaste, since I ate 12 whole cloves of garlic while writing this article.