4 spices for better health—and holiday cooking

Consumer Reports News: December 18, 2009 06:08 PM

For great-tasting holiday meals, you need look no further than your spice rack. While adding flavor to your festive dishes is reason enough to sprinkle in more seasonings, many spices provide healthful benefits and help fight disease, too. Here are four spices to try this holiday season, along with some cooking tips from our ShopSmart staffers:

1. Cloves. These aromatic little orbs are packed with healthy phenols, phytonutrients that have been shown in studies to defend against the cellular damage that can contribute to heart disease, diabetes, and the effects of aging. In fact, just 1 tablespoon of ground cloves is about as potent in phenols as a whole cup of blueberries. Chewing cloves may also help chase away bad breath. Cooking tips: Cloves can add zest to breakfast, say Sara Engram and Katie Luber, authors of "The Spice Kitchen". Try adding 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of ground cloves per cup of pancake syrup or stir a pinch right into your pancake or waffle batter.

2. Thyme. Studies have shown that essential oils in thyme can help reduce foodborne bacteria such as E. coli, staphylococcus, H. pylori, and their lesser-known but equally unpleasant cousin shigella. Sprinkling the herb on meat and fish or into salads and sauces along with black pepper instead of salt adds flavor plus antioxidants. Cooking tips: Add small amounts of thyme to scones, shortbread, and other baked goods for an herby richness that balances the sweetness. Author Engram loves nuts roasted with thyme. Just mix a little of the herb with butter or egg whites; toss with pecans, walnuts, or almonds; and roast and serve over vegetables.

3. Ginger. You may have heard of ginger as a remedy for an upset stomach; research shows it can also help soothe morning sickness, motion sickness, and queasiness from chemotherapy. In one study, patients who took 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoons of ginger with anti-vomiting drugs during chemotherapy experienced 40 percent less nausea. And an antioxidant in ginger called 6-gingerol might help ward off colon cancer. Cooking tips: Michael Krondl, author of "The Taste of Conquest", suggests adding diced ginger to apple pie or sweet potatoes or adding grated ginger to cranberry sauce to give it a little zing.

4. Rosemary. Research shows that a component of rosemary called carnosic acid might help shield the brain’s neural pathways from cellular damage linked to Alzheimer’s disease and stroke. Just inhaling rosemary’s refreshing scent might be good for you. In one study, when people sniffed the scent for 5 minutes, their levels of the stress hormone cortisol dropped and their body’s ability to sweep damaging free radicals from their systems increased. Cooking tip: Throw a little fresh rosemary into mulled apple cider as it simmers, suggest Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, authors of "The Flavor Bible".

Remember, you don't always need to pay top dollar for the best spices.Take a look at our new report on pricey vs. cheap spices, and watch our video (above).

Ginger Skinner and ShopSmart editors

Read about the health benefits of 4 other spices , including cinnamon for diabetes prevention. For more on the effectiveness and safety of herbs and spices in warding off and treating conditions, see our Natural Medicine Ratings  (subscribers only).

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