Today’s consumers are seeking foods that are healthy, fresh, aromatic, and flavorful. They want to indulge, but at the same time be well. The growing emphasis on tasty foods that provide well-being is drawing attention to spices as desirable ingredients for creating new products. Knowledge of the variety of spices used around the world, how they are prepared, and the way they are presented is critical for today’s food product designers.
Spices are also being researched for their medicinal value, either to complement existing ways of healing or as alternatives to drugs. People are thinking more holistically about their health and want new, more-effective and less-destructive (to the body) treatments for ailments and diseases, including life-threatening diseases. Thus, traditional medicine, practiced successfully in many regions of the world as complementary, integrative, or alternative medicine, is becoming more popular in the United States.
Spices are used in meals to create a state of wellness. For example, cooking foods with spices is the oldest form of aromatherapy, since the aroma can stimulate gastric secretions that create appetites. Aromatherapy, using essential oils, relaxes or stimulates the body, creates positive moods, relieves cold symptoms and respiratory problems, and eases muscle pains. The vapors are inhaled to release neurochemicals in the brain through receptors in the mouth and nose, which then cause the desired effects. Spices are also used as balms or massage oils and applied onto skin, joints, and muscles to relieve stress and pain. They are also mixed with warm water, tea, milk, or sugar and taken internally to give the desired cure.
In the U.S. and around the globe, the growing trend to use foods as nutraceuticals to boost energy and improve overall health will promote the use of spices to cure ailments and prevent diseases. This trend in functional foods and the therapeutic value of spices is attributable to the active components in spices, such as phthalides, polyacetylenes, phenolic acids, flavanoids, coumarins, capsaicinoids, triterpenoids, sterols, and monoterpenes, which today are being researched and considered as powerful tools for promoting physical and emotional wellness. Scientists are finding that spices such as parsley, ginger, turmeric, fenugreek, mint, licorice, garlic, onion, mustard, and chile pepper have numerous therapeutic properties. They stimulate production of enzymes that detoxify carcinogens, inhibit cholesterol synthesis, block estrogen, lower blood pressure, or prevent blood clotting.
A food product creator can explore interesting food concepts that combine taste and wellness by using authentic spices and methods of preparing and presenting them in meals. This article will look at traditional healing methods to provide an understanding of how and why spices are used by many global cultures as medicines. This will also help us understand the basis for the in-depth spice profiles, the contrasting flavors and textures, and the layering of flavors experienced in a meal.
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Historical Use of Spices as Medicine
Today’s trend in herbal supplements, spicy foods, and acupuncture is not a coincidence. Nearly two-thirds of the world’s 6.1 billion people rely on the healing power of plant-based materials for reasons of economics, availability, affordability, or their belief in traditional cures.
Spices are used in many traditional cultures to boost energy, relieve stress, improve the nervous system, aid digestion, relieve cold symptoms and headaches, and treat many diseases.
Early civilizations, such as Asian Indians, Middle Easterners, Chinese, Aztecs, and Incas, used spices since time immemorial to connect health and diet. They understood that spices had medicinal value and used them to help cure diseases and to prevent ailments. For example, sage was used to treat throat infections, chile peppers to stimulate digestion and induce perspiration, ginger to prevent motion sickness and aid digestion, garlic to lower cholesterol and high blood pressure, turmeric to inhibit tumors and heal wounds, licorice to relieve chronic fatigue, coughs, and cold symptoms, and peppermint to combat indigestion and inflammation of gums.
The East is the birthplace of the most popular spices and flavorings. India, Southeast Asia, and China have given us anise, basil, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, garlic, ginger, mace, mustard, nutmeg, onions, pepper, star anise, tamarind, and turmeric.
Many of the spices that are popular today are indigenous to India, where they have been savored for thousands of years. The sacred Ayurvedic texts, which were formulated before 1000 B.C. and dealt with matters of health and medicine, make frequent reference to the use of spices. For example, the Ayurvedic system of medicine suggested that cloves and cardamom wrapped in betel nut leaves be chewed after meals to aid digestion. In about 500 B.C., the physician Susruta the Second described more than 700 drugs derived from plants, including cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, turmeric, and peppers.
Turmeric is one of the most important healing spices used by Indians since ancient times. Ginger, referred to as the “medicine for the stomach” by Ayurvedics, has long been used by Indians and Chinese as a digestive aid and to improve blood circulation.
Ginger was used in China for thousands of years. Confucius, who lived from 551 to 479 B.C., mentions ginger in his Analects. The use of cassia was noted in the Eligies of Ch’u in the 4th century B.C., and the name of the South China state of Kweilin, founded in 216 B.C., translates literally into “cassia forest.” Chinese officials ate cloves in the 3rd century B.C. to sweeten their breaths when they addressed the emperor.
Other spices, such as bay leaf, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, fenugreek, rosemary, sage, sesame, and thyme came from the Middle East, North Africa, and other parts of the Mediterranean. Europeans have used oils from leafy spices or plants to provide physical, mental, and spiritual benefits such as to provide a calming effect, soothe muscle aches, or cure many ailments such as colds and fevers. In Europe, Pliny, the Roman herbalist, recommended chewing anise as a digestive aid. Similarly, Middle Easterners and Egyptians used spices such as garlic, fenugreek, cumin, and fennel for healing effects.
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Egyptians, Indians, and Ethiopians gave fenugreek in teas to nursing mothers to promote lactation. Fennel was used by ancient Europeans to cure earaches and soothe children with colic pains. Sage was considered a sacred herb by the Romans, who used it to calm nerves and soothe digestion.
While stories of most spices begin in the East, a number of the more popular spices and flavorings in use today are native to the Western Hemisphere. Since the dawn of time, Native American Indians—Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas—flavored their food and drinks with spices and offered them to their gods in religious ceremonies. Chile peppers, sweet peppers, allspice, annatto, chocolate, epazote, sassafras, and vanilla originated in the New World before being introduced to Europe and Asia.
Chile peppers have been used since prehistoric times as a valuable medicine for many ancient cultures. They were used by the Andean cultures to treat severe headaches and strokes. Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas used it to suppress the desire for alcohol, treat poor memory, and serve as an aphrodisiac. Epazote, another native spice in south Mexico and Central America, is steeped in milk and sugar and given to children to rid them of intestinal worms.
Preparation to Promote Wellness
The way spices are added, prepared, and presented in a meal creates desired healing effects. Indian cooking is derived from the therapeutic principles of ancient Ayurvedic medicine, which is based on practical and spiritual concepts and uses abundant spices. Ayurveda combines two words, ayu, which means life, and veda, which means knowledge. This holistic system of healing has been practiced in India for 5,000 years. It is based on prana (or life force), which flows easily into every cell of the body and which is accomplished by eating the right foods, using deep relaxation techniques, and following a healthy lifestyle. It strives to maintain good health and looks to the causes of disease. In the Ayurvedic meal, ingredients are chosen not only for taste, but also to assure physical and emotional harmony and well-being.
Ayurveda emphasizes prevention of disease through the pursuit of mental, physical, and emotional harmony. Unlike Western medicine, which deals with the treatment of disease, Ayurveda treatments are used to restore the body’s balance and to make it strong and not succumb to the imbalances that cause disease.
Ayurveda categorizes foods into six tastes or rasas. Many foods contain more than one taste. Understanding these rasas is essential to understanding and applying Ayurvedic medicine. They affect our digestion, disposition, and health. Different spices and foods contribute to each rasa. For example, fennel contributes to sweet, tamarind to sour, fenugreek to bitter, mustard to spicy, and asafetida to astringent.
To maintain perfect balance and be well nourished, all six rasas should be part of every meal. This explains the complex spice combinations and depth of flavor experienced with Indian foods. To harmonize the body, these tastes must be balanced in the meal according to each person’s constitution or dosha. Illnesses and diseases occur when there is imbalance with foods and a person’s constitution. There are three basic doshas that come from the five elements of energy (earth, fire, air, space, and water). They are called vata, pitta, and kapha, with each having specific qualities, such as quick-thinking, passionate, nervous, or strong-willed.
These doshas regulate the functions in our mind–body system. Certain spices and flavorings are used in our foods to balance our doshas and create harmony. These doshas also have their own inherent natural tastes. The six rasas have a beneficial effect on the doshas, increasing one type and decreasing the others. Ayurvedic cooking chooses foods with the tastes that balance our own doshas to maintain good health.
Tastes are used to balance an aggravated dosha, which gives rise to an illness. For example, the vatta personality is balanced by salt, sour (tamarind), and sweet (cardamon); pitta by bitter (fenugreek), sweet (fennel), and astringent (asafetida); and kapha by pungent (garlic), bitter (ajwain), and astringent (licorice).
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In Indian cooking, foods need to be well digested to be nourishing for the body. Foods can be hot, cold, moist, dry, heavy, or light. Hot food will speed digestion, while cold food will slow it. Every meal should be well balanced between hot and cold foods, with the different tastes and textures to promote digestion and avoid illnesses. The way Indian dishes are served in a traditional meal also illustrates these principles. In a typical vegetarian meal, rice and/or bread (chappati, naan, or dosai) is placed on a tray (thali), with an array of tiny silver bowls. These can contain sambar (peppery lentil stew), rasam (sour spice broth), raita (cool, minty cucumber–tomato–yogurt salad), sweet spicy braised vegetables, and crunchy, puckering mango pickle. All these taste and texture sensations balance each other to create “harmony” in the body.
In China, historically there has been an integration of nutrition, medicine, and foods. Similar to the Indian Ayurvedic medicine, Chinese traditional medicine has five different tastes—sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and spicy hot. The proper balance of these different tastes with appropriate textures and colors creates good taste and health in Chinese cooking.
Each taste affects the Qi or chi, an invisible, vital force (same as prana), that circulates throughout the body along prescribed pathways. The proper balance of these five tastes is essential to creating harmony or good health. If Qi does not flow smoothly or gets stuck, illness occurs. Qi can be unstuck by stimulants such as food, acupuncture, or acupressure.
The different tastes as well as the movement of Qi are described by yin and yang, which are very basic to Chinese culture, just as hot and cold are to Indian or Middle Eastern culture. They describe Qi’s location, movement, and functioning. There are yin (cold)-producing foods, which are nourishing, cooler, softer, moistening, and alkaline, and yang (hot)-producing foods, which are spicier, drier, and acidic. Yin foods include mild spices (mint, parsley), seafood, melon, asparagus, and steamed foods, while yang foods are chillies, ginger, meats, and fried foods. Yin spices are sedative and slow metabolism, while yang spices are active and increase metabolism.
Balancing the yin and yang keeps the body in a state of equilibrium and good health, as well as creates a wonderful release of flavors. Foods are prepared and cooked with spices based on this theory of well-being. This balancing is the basis of authentic Chinese cooking styles with contrasting flavors and textures.
Movement of Qi in the body is associated with yin and yang. For yin, the movement in the body is to contract and flow downward and inward; while for yang, the movement is to expand and flow upward and outward. One is not separate from the other, and in food combinations, yin follows yang and vice versa. Just as yin–yang creates movement, so do spices. With spices, the leaves and flowers produce an upward movement, while seeds, roots, and fruits have a downward movement, both affecting the flow of Qi.
In Chinese cooking, foods must also be balanced between hot and cold. Hot foods are those generally rich in fat (peanuts, mutton, or pork), spices such as chile peppers, sesame, and ginger, and strong alcoholic drinks. Cold foods are generally fruits, leafy spices, bland vegetables (seaweed, watercress), and water. Neutral foods include rice. Thus, rice is a centerpiece in a meal. Contrasting spices and ingredients are added to a meal to manipulate its hotness or coldness. For example, chile peppers are added to seaweed and sugar is added to spicy pork to balance their effects on the body. Cooking techniques are also classified under hot or cold. Grilling or deep-frying adds heat to foods, while steaming or slow simmering cools it down.
Similar to Ayurveda, the state of the person’s health and seasons also become important factors in balancing ingredients for health. A person with fever will not eat warm or hot spices. She needs cooling ingredients to balance her system. During the cold season, spices that produce an upward and outward movement (yang spices) are more desirable for the flow of Qi.
Food developers can use these meal presentation concepts today to develop interesting and well-balanced meals. Blending Ayurveda and Western medicine can bring together this ancient philosophy of health with modern science. People are turning to nature to provide remedies and to prevent disease. We see this trend growing with our increasing environmental concerns and the trend favoring natural and organic foods.
Finally, it should be remembered that cultures that use spices as traditional cures consume them at much higher levels than Western cultures. For many societies, spices are used in foods at every meal on a daily basis, unlike in Western cooking, where they are typically used in small quantities. Moreover, spices are taken in teas, milk, coffee, buttermilk, water, and other beverages, an uncommon practice in the West.
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Integrating Spices into Western Medicine
Many spices are now being recognized by Western scientists for their positive therapeutic or pharmacologic properties. With the trend favoring dietary supplements or functional foods, their isolated bioactive ingredients are regarded as the cures. These include sulfides, thiols, terpenes and their derivatives, phenols, glycosides, alcohols, aldehydes, and esters.
While the healing effects of many phytochemicals have been identified, many questions still remain unanswered. Are these bioactive ingredients by themselves the effective cures, or is the whole spice—the root, seed, or flower, as was traditionally used—the effective agent?
Chemicals act and react with one another to give a combined effect. Can the healing properties be strengthened or lessened through a synergistic effect with other spices and ingredients? In traditional cultures, spices were not only used in cooking but also added to milk, tea, hot water, ghee, or sugar to give the desired healing effects. For example, chile peppers are added to milk to reduce swellings, turmeric made into paste with milk to reduce coughs and colds, and saffron mixed with ghee to prevent colic pains. It is also documented in Indian literature that spices in particular combinations provide specific healing effects. For example, ginger when combined with turmeric lowers fevers and with coriander stops diarrhea and removes phlegm. But with modern medicine, we take capsules, tablets, or extracts containing the spice or its bioactive ingredient, based on scientific studies that these will give the same effect.
We are beginning to realize today that a product development can only be successful when technology is combined with culinary skills. A similar comparison can be made with medicine. Traditional medicine is a treatment that uses nature’s sources with other techniques such as acupressure, massage, and acupuncture. Its success involves trial and error, just like science and technology, which also explores and tests to get the best benefits in medicine. Only the protocols are different.
Traditional medicine should not be pitted against modern medicine; rather, we need to learn how to use one with the other to get the best results. The National Institutes of Health established an Office of Alternative Medicine in the early 1990s which last year became the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NAFM). It has a minimum budget of $68 million. It gets reliable information and access to effective, holistic medical care in the face of life-threatening disease. Its mission is to seek out effective alternative medical treatments, evaluate the protocols and outcomes of these treatments, and report the findings to the public. It reviews clinics around the world (which have physicians who are part of the national health services in respective countries) that focus on alternative treatments of disease or use complementary treatments, and makes these treatments public or available to consumers in the U.S. Health problems are considered in a more holistic fashion—taking the entire person, including mind, body, and spirit. The goal is to expand the way the health services are provided in this country.
Instead of totally disregarding the values of traditional medicine, which includes spices as tools for healing, let’s look at their potential value in nutraceuticals and in complementing Western or modern medicine. Traditional medicine is becoming an important part of the changing culture in the U.S. Understanding cultures, their tastes, cooking methods, religious issues, how they eat, and their approaches to preventing illnesses and staying healthy is an important tool for creating successful products for the changing consumer.
This article contains excerpts from the author’s forthcoming Handbook of Spices, Seasonings, and Flavorings, to be published by Technomic Publishing Co., Inc., Lancaster, Pa.
by SUSHEELA UHL
The author, a Professional Member of IFT, is President, Horizons Consulting, 546 Jefferson Ave., Mamaroneck, NY 10543.
Edited by Neil H. Mermelstein,