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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 (a substance necessary for metabolism), some of which may contribute to health and healing.
It has long been associated with reducing nausea, pain and inflammation, and is known to enhance digestion of food.
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.
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.
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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