En español | In ancient India, cloves were believed to help toothaches, a theory that holds true today. Ancient cultures have long supported the use of food as medicine. Spices and herbs in particular can help protect us from illnesses and heal us from common ailments.
Today, professionals from alternative healers to nutritionists are rediscovering the benefits of herbs — and almost every day new research confirms much of the ancient wisdom surrounding spices. Gurpareet Bains, author of Indian Superfood, says that recent Agriculture Department research shows that nearly a quarter of the top antioxidant-rich foods are, in fact, spices.
During the cold winter months, many spices and herbs offer taste as well as cold- and flu-fighting properties. "Cinnamon and cloves contain potent antibacterial, antiviral, analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties — perfect for the winter months, and far tastier than cold and flu drugs," says Bains.
We picked a few spices that play well with winter foods, such as root vegetables, stews and soups, and asked leading spice experts to tell us the health benefits and how we can incorporate them into winter meals.
Warren Sheir, co-author of Ancient Wisdom, Modern Kitchen: Recipes From the East for Health, Healing, and Long Life, notes that sage, a European and Mediterranean herb, often is used as a topical antiseptic, such as a mouthwash to treat inflamed gums or as a gargle to help a sore throat. This claim is supported by a 2006 study published by the European Journal of Medical Research.
Sheir advises using fresh sage instead of dried where possible. "Sage is one of the many herbs where the real 'medicinal' component is found in the oil, and the oil is found only in fresh sage," he says
Usage: Sage is a hearty herb; a flavor enhancer for stuffing, sautéed mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, roasted butternut squash or pumpkin, baked apples, or roasted peaches. Try it in meat stews or let the herb steep in hot water to make a tea.
Kami McBride, of the Living Awareness Institute and author of The Herbal Kitchen, says, "Cinnamon may help you digest the nutrients in food. It increases the flow of blood and oxygen to the digestive tract, improving your ability to digest proteins and fat." Two 2006 studies show that it is a powerful antioxidant and able to lower cholesterol, triglycerides and glucose. Another study ranked cinnamon as fourth out of 500 foods highest in antioxidant content.
Usage: Make a cinnamon-honey condiment with 1 cup honey and 3 tablespoons ground cinnamon. Store in a covered jar and use on pancakes. "At our house, we keep this honey on our kitchen table and put it on morning toast and oatmeal. It also makes a delicious digestive tea or flavoring for pancake batter and muffins. Spreading cinnamon honey on your morning toast can warm you up on a winter morning, reduce your susceptibility to a cold and stimulate digestion," says McBride.
Cinnamon is also great in savory dishes such as lamb stews, rice casseroles, ratatouille and moussaka.