Curcumin is the main health-boosting compound found in turmeric, and turmeric forms the foundation of curry. It's an anti-inflammatory so it helps reduce the risk of pretty much every degenerative condition, especially those of the brain, heart, and nervous system.
There's evidence to suggest that lower rates of Alzheimer's disease in India (compared to the U.S.) and East Asia (compared to Europe) could be related to greater amounts of turmeric consumption. This is based on curcumin's ability to cross the blood brain barrier and exhibit a variety of neuroprotective effects.
Curcumin is also a powerful antioxidant, meaning it provides dual protection against disease. Research shows it's 5-10 times stronger than vitamin C and E when it comes to gobbling up free radicals.
When you think of cinnamon, think "blood sugar." It's one of the best things you can add to your diet to improve insulin sensitivity and glycemic control. A review study from the journal Diabetes Obesity and Metabolism looked at cinnamon's affect on fasting blood glucose in type 2 diabetics and found reductions ranging from 10-29 percent.
One easy way to add cinnamon to your diet is to put it in your coffee or tea. This will easily put you in the 1-3 gram per day range (1-2 teaspoons) where these benefits lie. It's also a great spice for adding to other foods. The ever-popular sweet potato and cinnamon combo will light up your taste buds without lighting up your blood sugar.
Garlic is like an insurance policy. It protects you against the common cold and other sicknesses, and enhances the overall health of your gastrointestinal tract where disease starts. A regular dose of garlic keeps things balanced in your gut by killing yeast and pathogenic bacteria, and feeding the beneficial microbes that help keep us lean and healthy. Onions and shallots do the same, but what sets garlic apart is its allicin content. Allicin is a compound that's only released when the garlic cloves are chopped or crushed, so consume it fresh when possible.
4. Cayenne/Paprika (Peppers)
This spice comes from those little red and green peppers. It's best known for its ability to fire up your metabolism and get your blood pumping. The high capsaicin content is responsible for the bump in energy expenditure and dilation of blood vessels.
But the real benefit from capsaicin-containing spices is their ability to control hunger. Arguably, this is the bigger driver behind all the positive research on fat loss. A study from the journal Physiology & Behavior split 25 normal weight men and women into two groups. One group received a gram of red pepper spice and the other received none. The spice eaters had a slightly higher core temperature and energy expenditure, and a significantly lower appetite and desire to consume fatty, salty, and sweet foods.
Similarly, a 2009 study showed a significant difference in ghrelin (the hunger hormone) after assigning participants to a capsaicin-containing, or capsaicin-free lunch.
Ginger is best known for its anti-inflammatory effects. It helps soothe or calm the muscles of the gastrointestinal system and alleviates nausea and morning sickness. There's also plenty of research to suggest that ginger is beneficial for arthritic pain and muscle soreness, which wouldn't be surprising given its anti-inflammatory effects. It also supplies a hefty dose of antioxidants, so you can expect to experience the same protection against diseases, most notably those of the brain and heart.
When looking at the more common herbs and spices listed here, ground cloves actually have the highest ORAC value – a measure of antioxidant status – with some indexes suggesting it's nearly double that of oregano, the next highest gram-for-gram.
Cloves are great for digestion, essentially "warming up the stomach" and encouraging the body to secrete stomach acid (HCL), which is critical for the proper breakdown of food and absorption of the nutrients in it. Cloves also supply a shot of antimicrobial, antifungal, and antiviral oil which disarms potential pathogens and boosts the overall strength and function of the immune and gastrointestinal system.
Despite conventional thinking, a lack of HCL is the reason many struggle with heartburn, indigestion, and other gastrointestinal issues. So, ditch the Maalox and Tums and get some cloves (and apple cider vinegar) in the mix.
Cumin is another popular ingredient in curry and is responsible for that delicious taco flavor in Mexican dishes. It's best to think of cumin as a digestion helper, bacteria fighter, and oxidation preventer. It may also reduce blood glucose and glycation (in diabetic rats), and boost the immune response (in stress-induced mice). But we should probably take that information with a grain of salt.
It's one of the top spices for aiding digestion, its powerful oil kills pathogenic bacteria (Streptococcus mutans and Candida albicans) in the mouth and likely the gut, and it has a dilating affect, supporting better oxygen and blood flow. Other than using it in tea or adding it to sweet dishes, you can chew on the cardamom pods, like they do in India, to fight bad breath and get a little teeth cleaning from the fibrous coating.
9. Fennel Seeds
This cooling spice helps with digestion and bad breath. The essential oils in fennel seeds also appear to stave off infection and relax the stomach muscles. Fennel is known to provide relief to those with irritated gastrointestinal tracts, and it protects against bacterial overgrowth and infection. It's also a rich source of antioxidants. One analysis identified 23 bioflavonoid or phenolic-rich compounds in the essential oil produced from its crushed seeds.
10. Peppercorn (Black Pepper)
Black pepper is the most commonly traded and consumed spice, yet the benefits are commonly unknown. If they were known, we'd see more pairings of pepper with other spices given that "increasing the absorption of other nutrients" is its biggest attribute. Think of it as the spice that complements other spices. In one study, researchers administered two grams of curcumin with and without piperine (the chemical compound in peppercorn) and saw 2000-percent greater bioavailability when piperine was included.