For some, the phrase ‘healthy eating’ brings the thought of a boring grilled chicken breast on a bed of plain vegetables. Others might imagine the tedium of bland salad after bland salad, and there’s even the dispiriting adage that ‘if it tastes good, it’s bad for you’.
But this really isn’t the case: you can eat flavourful food that’s still healthy. In fact, multiple studies have shown that spices and herbs don’t just enhance our food’s flavour, but also do wonders for our health (1). Spices can improve our gut’s microbiome, a teeming metropolis of microorganisms that can benefit the whole body if nourished properly (2).
Read on to find out the 4 spices you should be eating to boost your gut as well as your food’s flavour, and 2 spices that aren’t as healthy as they’ve been made out to be.
Ginger: an Ancient Spice with a Myriad of Health Benefits
Many ancient societies recognised ginger’s nutritional value. This knobbly, yellow root is packed with potent anti-inflammatory compounds called gingerols that can help those with rheumatoid arthritis (3). Ginger also helps pregnant women with nausea, can lower cholesterol and may have anti-cancer properties.
But ginger also has a long tradition of being used to improve digestive health in particular, helping those with constipation and indigestion by emptying the stomach faster (4).
You can get more of this sweet and spicy root into your diet by garnishing your curries with it, chopping it into salad dressings and mixing it into sauces. Drink ginger tea in the morning for a caffeine-free energy boost that, unlike coffee, won’t irritate your stomach lining (5).
Feed your Gut Garlic
The Guardian calls garlic a ‘superfood’. They’re not wrong: garlic contains the compound allicin, which gives it its pungent, oniony flavour. Allicin may even fight against heart disease and lower cholesterol (6).
Keep in mind that allicin is only released from garlic when it’s chopped, so consider grating raw garlic over cooked meat and vegetables or rubbing it on toast. Alternatively, use it in pesto or blend it with ginger and a splash of water for a delicious paste you can add to curries’ bases.
However, as much as you might love eating garlic flavoured dishes, your gut will love it more. Garlic is a prebiotic: a non-digestible ingredient that helps good bacteria grow in your intestine (7). So don’t just eat garlic for yourself, eat it to feed the trillions of critters that call your microbiome home.
Powerful Black Peppercorns
Black peppercorns hail from Southern India, and are actually dried berries picked from a flowering vine. This fiery spice has antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, and is loaded with calcium, manganese and vitamin K (8).
Black pepper also promotes gut health by causing your stomach to release more hydrochloric acid. This aids nutrient absorption, combats heartburn and indigestion, and can ultimately prevent bad bacteria from growing in your microbiome that could lead to diarrhea and constipation (9).
Pepper is especially easy to add to your diet. You can basically grind it on anything. We’d recommend sprinkling pepper on seasonal fruit to bring out their sweetness while introducing a surprising kick.
A popular spice, cinnamon is loved worldwide for its sweet and woody aroma. It comes from the inner bark of cinnamomum trees: small, evergreen trees originating in Sri Lanka, India and Myanmar.
Dr Dean and Dr Ayesha Sherzai recommend having cinnamon to protect the mind while aging (10), and its essential oils have a chemical that displays antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal properties.
But what makes cinnamon so good for your gut is its prebiotic potential. Like garlic, cinnamon may suppress bad bacteria in your intestine and foster the growth of good microorganisms (11). You can eat more of this wonderful spice by dusting powdered cinnamon on granola, mixing it in hot drinks, or infusing it whole in stews.
What about Turmeric?
Given the praise it receives in the tabloids and the number of new turmeric drinks being stirred up in coffee shops, you’re probably surprised that this ‘golden spice’ isn’t in our top 5. Turmeric has curcumin, a chemical that protects against cancer. So why didn’t it make the cut?
The answer lies in how poorly curcumin is absorbed into the bloodstream. As our founder Catherine Rogers explains in her book Gut Well Soon, you’d need to wolf down 100g of turmeric just for it to be detected in the blood (12). No recipe would ever call for that much turmeric, and, even if it did, no one would want to eat it!
That doesn’t mean you should stop eating turmeric if you like it. As a natural food colouring, you can cook it with rice to give the grains a lovely yellow hue.
And Himalayan Salt?
Himalayan salt is another seasoning masquerading around as super healthy. But don’t fall for the hype: himalayan salt has the same amount of sodium as table salt and comes with the same risks (13).
Instead, why not use a bit less salt and boost flavour with herbs and spices? There’s a whole world of them to discover that aren’t in our top 4: garnish your food with coriander or parsley, infuse aroma with rosemary or cardamom, or try cooking with cumin, a spice that plays a prominent part in many world cuisines.
How you can improve your gut health now
Want to start cooking with these spices and start healing your gut? Check out some of our tasty BBQ recipes.
Or else, sign up to Reset Your Health for personalised advice, shopping lists and flavourful recipes. Avoid the myths and get your gut health back on track!
(1) Todd L. 10 healthy herbs and spices: Anti-inflammatory, nutritious, and more [Internet]. Medical News Today. MediLexicon International; 2021 [cited 2021Sep14]. Available from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/healthy-herbs-and-spices
(2) Farre-Maduell E, Casals-Pascual C. The origins of gut microbiome research in Europe: From Escherich to Nissle. Human Microbiome Journal. 2019Dec;14.
(3) Health benefits of ginger for arthritis [Internet]. Living With Arthritis. 2016 [cited 2021Sep14]. Available from: http://blog.arthritis.org/living-with-arthritis/health-benefits-of-ginger/
(4) Leech J. 11 scientifically proven health benefits of ginger [Internet]. Healthline. Healthline Media; 2021 [cited 2021Sep14]. Available from: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/11-proven-benefits-of-ginger#6.-Can-help-treat-chronic-indigestion
(5) Burns L. Can coffee damage the lining of your stomach? [Internet]. LIVESTRONG.COM. Leaf Group; [cited 2021Sep14]. Available from: https://www.livestrong.com/article/544341-can-coffee-damage-the-lining-of-your-stomach/
(6) Liu D-S, Wang S-L, Li J-M, Liang E-S, Yan M-Z, Gao W. Allicin improves carotid artery intima-media thickness in coronary artery disease patients with hyperhomocysteinemia. Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine. 2017Aug;14.2:1722–6.
(7) Which foods can improve your gut bacteria? [Internet]. BBC News. BBC; 2017 [cited 2021Sep16]. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-38800977
(8) Butt MS, Pasha I, Saeed F, Ahmed W. Black pepper and health claims: a comprehensive treatise. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr [Internet]. 2013 [cited 2021Sep14];:875–6. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23768180/
(9) Black Pepper [Internet]. The World’s Healthiest Foods. [cited 2021Sep14]. Available from: http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=74
(10) Sherzai D, Sherzai A. The Alzheimer’s solution : a breakthrough program to prevent and reverse the symptoms of cognitive decline at every age. New York, NY: Harper One; 2017.
(11) Lewin J. Top 6 health benefits of cinnamon [Internet]. BBC Good Food. [cited 2021Sep14]. Available from: https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/health-benefits-cinnamon
(12) Rogers C. Gut Well Soon: A Practical Guide to a Healthier Body and Happier Mind. St Albans , Herts, UK: Panoma Press; 2018. Buy it here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Gut-Well-Soon-Practical-Healthier/dp/1784521566/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=(13) Mead N. Himalayan pink sea salt isn’t as healthy as you think it is [Internet]. Netdoctor. Netdoctor; 2019 [cited 2021Sep14]. Available from: https://www.netdoctor.co.uk/healthy-eating/advice/a26071/benefits-of-himalayan-pink-sea-salt/