Though I couldn’t say for sure, I’d be willing to bet money that herbs and spices have been used to flavor foods as long as people have been eating. And that’s a long time.

Enhancing palatability is only one of their many functions though. They have also been used for healing, or calling out to the gods and goddesses. In a pre-refrigeration age, they played a key role in preserving food – and masking off flavors.

Today, we generally think of herbs and spices mainly as culinary adjuncts. And in this role they perform admirably, as the many recipes on testify.  But in this column, we also want to feature their health benefits. Not all these “flavor packets” have been given rigorous scientific scrutiny. Nevertheless, it’s my own theory that foods in use over millennia are likely to have some benefit – even if we can’t document it. It’s just that no one has funded the research yet.

Fortunately for us, though, there was a large study on spicy food done in China recently.  Close to a half million adults were included. Even after adjusting for confounding variables, such as age, income/education level, health condition and smoking status, as a group, those who consumed spicy food most often had a 14% lower risk of death compared with those who ate this food less than two times a week.

“Capsaicin has long been recognized as an anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, anti-cancer, and anti- hypertensive agent.”

The definition of “spice” in this study was largely confined to chili peppers – fresh, dried, infused in oil or in a sauce. The authors of this study found the greatest benefit in fresh chili. They also stated that eating chili two times a week was enough to get pretty much the full benefit. Regular alcohol consumption reduced the effect. Medical conditions that were most impacted favorably were cancer, heart disease and lung disease.

Note that this study does not prove that chili reduces mortality. No cause and effect was established. However, there are some theories as to why this relationship between chili and lower mortality exists.

It’s thought that a major component of chili – capsaicin – is the active agent – either alone or with other nutrients in chili, including vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin B6 and potassium. Capsaicin has long been recognized as an anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, anti-cancer, and anti- hypertensive agent.

No one herb or spice is a “magic bullet,” but adding these gifts from the garden to your daily cooking regimen can be just one-more-thing you do to help your body function at its best.

Stay tuned for upcoming notes on other herbs and spices, and check out this menu of yummy spicy foods to spice up your diet!



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