If you want to get healthy, but feel daunted by the idea of totally overhauling your lifestyle, take a step back and focus on the little things.
The smallest element of your food choices? Spices. Easier than blending a smoothie, and much, much, easier than finishing that barre class, cooking with spices is a teensy tiny change that’ll ramp up your health game.
Spices can be potent, powerful, and purifying. An extensive spice rack conjures up fantastic potential of ancient herb magic: releasing the healing properties of plants and concentrating on remedies based on practices of natural healing sciences such as Chinese medicine or Ayurveda. Spices have been the center of numerous scientific studies charting their role in cancer prevention, treating indigestion, and improving memory.
Spices not only offer extensive health benefits, but also create depth of flavor in your cooking. And if you’re plant-based or gluten-intolerant, you know the importance of seasoning that tofu or cauliflower crust to keep your taste buds happy.
Here’s a list of 9 of our favorite purifying spices. You probably already have some of these in your pantry, waiting to be thrown into the pot!
This golden-hued spice with a warm and bitter taste has long been revered in Chinese and Indian systems of medicine because of its incredible healing properties.
Health Benefits: fights cancer and tumors, heals damaged livers, curbs joint pain, inhibits inflammation, blocks free radicals and stimulates the body’s antioxidant enzymes, lowers risk of heart disease, improves brain function
Suggested Recipes: Turmeric Curried Golden Carrot Slaw; Indian curries and daal; turmeric and honey almond milk latté; turmeric tofu scramble; turmeric avocado toast
It’s a key ingredient in the “Master Cleanse” for a reason!
Origin: Central and South America
Health Benefits: Boosts metabolism, aids digestion, prevents migraine headaches, stimulates circulation, promotes heart health, balances LDL cholesterol, lowers blood pressure
Ginger is part of the same happy family of turmeric, cardamom, and galangal. And like turmeric, it has been a key component in Ayurveda medicine and Chinese medicine for thousands of years. Fresh ginger is preferable of course, but the dried variety still packs a punch.
Health Benefits: soothes nausea, treats inflammation, fights tumors and cancer, boosts metabolism, protects against toxic effects of environmental chemicals, fights infection, protects against respiratory viruses
Suggested Recipes: Ginger lemon tea; flavor Thai curries and soups; add to peach pie; pumpkin or sweet potato ginger soup; Vegan Pho with Ginger Baked Tofu; Gingery Coconut Stew with Brussels & Rutabaga
Today cinnamon is as basic as it gets, but it was once a luxury spice prized by the Ancient Egyptians for its health benefits. Later, cinnamon played an integral role in the spice trade, fueling the greedy conquests of the New World. We use cassia and Ceylon cinnamon interchangeably, although purists argue that Ceylon is the “true” cinnamon. Ceylon is pricier but has a more delicate flavor and also lower levels of coumarin (which can be toxic to the liver in large doses).
Origin: Ceylon native to Sri Lanka, Cassia native to China
Health Benefits: fights against bacterial and fungal infections, helps improve glucose, lipid levels, and LDL and total cholesterol, lowers the negative effects of high fat meals, controls blood sugar
Suggested Recipes: Replace sugar with cinnamon in coffee and oatmeal; sprinkle on toast with coconut manna or almond butter; somewhat healthy cinnamon rolls; accenting a winter grain salad with roasted squash, walnuts, and orange flavors
Sage is a sacred herb. Bundles of white sage or salvia apiana are known for their ability to purify new spaces (which you believe in if you were raised on/still love Kombucha Kool-Aid like I was/do). Meanwhile, common sage or salvia officinalis – the kind you find in your pantry – was considered by the Romans to be a special plant deserving of ceremonial harvesting.
Origin: Mediterranean (salvia offinialis)
Health Benefits: improves memory, soothes digestion, reduces overproduction of perspiration, calms painful menstrual cramps, heals gum disease, sore mouth or throat
Suggested Recipes: Pair with Tuscan white beans, butternut squash, nut roasts, seitan, lentils, or stuffing; add as an accent to cornbread; Cauliflower Mash with Miso and Sage; add generous amounts to any hearty soups
Rosemary, or the “rose of the sea”, is steeped in history and folklore – as an adornment in wedding garlands, a token for remembrance and also protection against witchcraft. Besides its rich symbolism, this fragrant evergreen herb can be used in both savory and sweet dishes.
Health Benefits: possesses anti-tumor qualities, protects against macular degeneration, enhances cognitive performance, neutralizes free radicals
Suggested Recipes: Flavored olive oil; Baked goods such as shortbread or rosemary chocolate chip cookies; Pair with potatoes, mushrooms, beans, asparagus, lemon, or garlic
This aromatic spice is delicious in both sweet and savory dishes, with its woodsy and slightly citrusy taste. Since it’s from the same family as ginger and turmeric, cardamom can complement those spices as well as with cinnamon cloves, fennel, and saffron.
Health Benefits: counteracts digestive problems, freshens breath, lowers blood pressure, detoxes the urinary tract, bladder and kidneys due to its diuretic properties, inhibits cancer growth, acts as an anti-inflammatory in mouth and throat, lowers blood pressure
Suggested Recipes: Add to coffee or morning shakes; Scandinavian-style cakes and pastries and Indian sweet dishes; Moroccan and Indian curry dishes; Paired with pistachio, rose, cashew, coconut, vanilla, rice, carrots, or winter squash Cashew-Cardamom Chia Pudding
Nutmeg was once so highly valued that the Dutch gave the British the entire island of Manhattan in exchange for the island Run in Indonesia – because it was the last nutmeg-producing island that the British controlled.
Health Benefits: soothes digestion, strengthens cognitive function, reduces insomnia, boosts skin health, improves blood circulation, increases kidney and liver function, fights bad breath
Recipe Ideas: Sprinkle on overnight oats; Add to cream (or cashew cream-based) dishes and Swiss chard; Add to savory dark stews, anything pumpkin-related, curried rice dishes, and sauces such as butternut squash-based or cashew-based alfredo
Saffron is the seductive spice — used by Cleopatra as a fragrant essence, considered an aphrodisiac by the ancient Greeks, and valued at the same price as gold in Renaissance Venice. It’ll still cost you a pretty penny today, but its unparalleled flavor and medicinal qualities make it worth the splurge.
Origin: Greece and the Middle East
Health Benefits: inhibits tumor cell growth, reverses aluminum toxicity, treats asthma and coughing by clearing airways, treats insomnia, increases circulation, regulates menstruation, increases libido
Recipe Ideas: Saffron Risotto and other rice dishes; Paired with chickpeas, pistachio, mushroom, orange; this swanky Artichoke Tortellini with Saffron Cream Sauce
Lila has a BA from Pomona College and a master's in International Development Studies from the University of Cambridge. Raised vegetarian for life (and vegan for the past nine years) in a health-conscious household in Woodstock, NY, Lila has long been attuned to physical and spiritual wellness — as a dancer, yogi, and self-taught (yet impressive) vegan cook/baker.
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