Last updated on 14 May 2021
In celebration of Deepavali, we dive into the properties of common Indian spices that form the base of popular Indian cuisine, and consider their potential health benefits.
It’s good to note, though, that some of these benefits draw references from the olden Ayurveda times, and scientific research done on herbs and spices is still limited.
Ground cardamom is often used to give tea, curries and rice a flavour boost. A small amount is often used, as too much of it will overpower milder flavours in the dish.
Antioxidant and cancer fighting properties
This flavourful spice is packed with health benefits and has been used in traditional medicine for centuries. Some evidence shows that this herb has antioxidant properties and has the ability to produce compounds that may help fight cancer cells.
The antioxidants that are found abundantly in cardamom protect cells from damage and stop inflammation from occurring.
Treats bad breath and prevents cavities
Cardamom has long been used to freshen breath and improve oral health. This is related to its ability to fight common mouth bacteria.
It is used in karanji (a small pastry pocket stuffed with poppy seeds, grated coconut, sugar, nuts and cardamom) and mithai (an assortment of Indian sweets).
The oily component of this aromatic spice is very high in cinnamaldehyde, a compound scientists believe is responsible for most of cinnamon's powerful effects on health and metabolism.
Helps to reduce cholesterol levels
A study comparing 26 spices placed cinnamon at the top for its high amount of antioxidants, surpassing garlic and oregano. Its anti-inflammatory properties may prevent the formation of free radicals that damage your cells and nervous system, and also help to reduce cholesterol levels.
High in antioxidants
Cinnamon contains high levels of antioxidants, such as polyphenols that can protect the body from oxidative damage caused by free radicals. These antioxidants have potent anti-inflammatory properties, which may help your body fight infections and repair tissue damage.
Helps to reduce risk of heart disease
Cinnamon has been shown to reduce levels of total cholesterol, bad cholesterol (LDL) and triglycerides, while maintaining levels of good cholesterol (HDL). The special compounds in cinnamon may help reduce the risk of heart disease.
It is often used in keema (an Indian spiced lamb), chicken dhansak (an Indian curry) and namkeens (Indian savoury snacks).
The plant’s seeds and leaves are often featured in Indian cooking as both spice and garnish, and is a key element in garam masala (a blend of ground spices).
Anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties
This superfood claims to have anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties, and is known to help lower blood pressure, blood sugar levels and cholesterol levels.
Helps lower blood sugar
Coriander seeds, extract, and oils may all help lower blood sugar levels by increasing insulin release from the beta cells of the pancreas. People with low blood sugar or those taking diabetes medication should use it with caution.
You are likely to taste coriander in aloo tikki (the Indian version of croquette or hash brown) or samosa (a fried or baked triangular puff filled with potatoes, onions, peas or lentils).
Cumin has long been used in traditional medicine and is a rich source of iron.
Aids in digestion and reduce food-borne infections
It is rich in antioxidants, and has been shown to exhibit anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties. Some studies have demonstrated that cumin can also aid in digestion and help in reducing food-borne infections. Some research also suggests that cumin powder, when added to a low-calorie diet, can help with weight loss.
Helps manage blood sugar levels
Cumin might lower blood sugar levels in some people with diabetes. However, other human studies have shown mixed results and therefore more research is necessary to confirm the benefits of cumin seeds for those with diabetes.
It is used in a popular Indian snack called murukku (deep fried coils of rice flour and spices). This snack should be enjoyed in moderation, though, as it is high in fat and may lead to weight gain.
Research shows that ginger contains hundreds of compounds and metabolites, some of which may contribute to health and healing.
Reduces nausea and inflammation
It has long been associated with reducing nausea, pain and inflammation, and is known to enhance digestion of food.
Reduces nausea and inflammation
Ginger has long been associated with reducing nausea, pain and inflammation. It is especially effective when it comes to pregnancy-related nausea such as morning sickness. Additionally, it has also been found to be equally effective as drugs against menstrual pain. Much of ginger’s beneficial properties are attributed to gingerol, which has powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.
Helps with osteoarthritis
People who used ginger to treat their osteoarthritis saw significant reductions in pain and stiffness, especially in osteoarthritis of the knee. Some people, however, may not enjoy the taste of ginger and may experience stomach upset.
Lower blood sugars and improve heart health
Recent studies have found that ginger may have anti-diabetic properties. A study found that ginger dramatically improved HbA1c levels as well as other biochemical markers that are indicative of risk factors of heart disease. However, more studies maybe needed in humans to validate this claim.
Ginger is an essential ingredient in Indian cuisine, and can be found in dishes like chickpea stew, aloo gobi (a dish of potatoes and cauliflower), matar paneer (cheese and peas in tomato sauce), dal makhani (lentils cooked with butter) and more.
This bright yellow spice gives many Indian dishes their characteristic colour. Turmeric, a relative of the ginger root, is known for its anti-inflammatory properties, and for being a flavour and colour additive in curries.
Medicinal properties that may prevent heart attacks
It has been used in India for thousands of years as a spice and medicinal herb. Research has shown that it contains compounds with medicinal properties, the most important of which is curcumin, the main active ingredient in turmeric. Preliminary studies found that curcuminoids from turmeric may reduce the number of heart attacks patients have after bypass surgery.
Boosts brain function
Curcumin in turmeric has beneficial effect on levels of brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which has been associated to delay or even reverse many brain diseases and age-related decreases in brain function.
Shows benefits against depression
A small study has shown that curcumin can help with patients suffering from depression. This could also be linked to its effects in boosting BDNF levels, which is implicated in depression. There is also some evidence that curcumin can boost brain neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine.
Turmeric is also used as a dietary supplement to treat inflammatory arthritis, as well as stomach, skin, liver and gall bladder problems.
Remember: While there are health benefits in the spices added to popular Indian cuisine, these foods, especially festive snacks, may also be high in sugar or fat content. So, be mindful and always consume everything in moderation!
Article reviewed by Alefia Vasanwala, principal dietitian at Mount Elizabeth Hospital
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