Herbs and spices—such as cinnamon, oregano, turmeric and ginger—are a health-conscious cook’s secret weapon. Beyond great flavor, many offer impressive health benefits. Here are six of the best herbs and spices that can help kick up the health factor of your meals.
This sweet-smelling, comforting spice “has [a] potential benefit for blood sugar control,” says Tara Gidus Collingwood, MS, RDN, CSSD, a performance dietitian in Orlando, Florida. That’s good news if you’re trying to reduce your risk of developing diabetes. Cinnamon also has antimicrobial properties that can help fight bacteria.
Spice it up: Skip the sugar and supplement your coffee or latte with a dash of cinnamon for nearly zero additional calories. The spice is excellent in savory dishes, too. Add ¼ teaspoon cinnamon to a pot of beef stew or use it in your next spice rub for grilled beef or lamb.
Cocoa powder contains antioxidant flavonols, which may protect against heart disease by lowering blood pressure and improving blood vessel health. Consuming cocoa may reduce age-related cognitive decline. For the most flavonols, choose natural cocoa powder, not Dutch-processed.
Spice it up: “I add unsweetened cocoa to pancake mix and oatmeal when I want rich chocolate flavor,” says Gidus Collingwood. It can also bring extra depth to meatless dishes, like vegetarian chili or black bean soup.
Ginger has long been a folk remedy for settling an upset stomach—and for good reason: “Ginger is potentially good for digestion,” says Gidus Collingwood, and there’s scientific evidence that it may ease nausea and vomiting related to pregnancy.
Spice it up: Put grated fresh ginger in a shrimp and tofu stir-fry for more zip. Gidus Collingwood likes it in hot tea and freshly squeezed juices. Ground ginger has a milder taste that works well in baked goods and savory dishes, so sprinkle it on chicken thighs or carrots before roasting.
A staple in Italian cooking, “oregano has potential antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, and it’s very high in antioxidants,” Gidus Collingwood says. In fact, oregano’s total antioxidant capacity is higher than that of almost any other herb or spice. And the dried version packs more antioxidants than fresh.
Spice it up: With its fragrant, herby aroma and bold flavor, a little oregano adds big taste. Sprinkle dried oregano on pizza or into homemade salad dressing. Use fresh or dried oregano in a marinade for grilled chicken or vegetables.
Red Pepper Flakes
Chili peppers get their spicy kick from capsaicin. This compound may help curb appetite and temporarily boost calorie burning. Small amounts of spice enhance certain flavors, including saltiness, so you can use less salt on your food without sacrificing taste.
Spice it up: All forms of chili peppers contain capsaicin, so squirt Sriracha chili sauce on your eggs, marinate meats with canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, or toss sliced fresh or pickled jalapeños on sandwiches or tacos.
A main ingredient in most curry powders, ground turmeric is known for its vibrant golden hue. “Curcumin, a compound in turmeric, may have anti-inflammatory properties,” says Gidus Collingwood. There’s even evidence that curcumin may do a better job of reducing the joint pain caused by arthritis than some anti-inflammatory drugs.
Spice it up: Ground turmeric has a mild flavor, making it really versatile, says Gidus Collingwood. “You can add it to pumpkin bread or sprinkle it on roasted squash or sweet potatoes.” Toss cauliflower florets with olive oil, ground turmeric and salt, then roast in the oven at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes.