Photo: Caitlin Bensel, Styling: Blakeslee Giles, Audrey Davis

Upgrade your spice rack with these staples ASAP.

Jill Waldbieser
March 15, 2018

Any home chef worth their salt knows spices can make a dish sing. But there’s another reason to shake 'em on: a host of health benefits. People often forget, but spices come from plants—the seeds, fruits, roots, or even bark—and are similarly high in antioxidants.

“Spices are some of the richest sources of antioxidants in our diet,” says Melina Jampolis, M.D., a board-certified physician and author of Spice Up, Slim Down. “They’re also a rich source of nutrients called polyphenols, which actually work on the cellular and even genetic level in many cases to promote health and prevent disease.” That could explain why a recent USDA report found that, as a nation, our spice use has more than tripled in the past 50 years.

Research has found that many seasonings have specific benefits, but they’re no substitute for a healthy lifestyle. “You cannot ‘outspice’ an unhealthy diet,” says Brigitte Zeitlin, R.D., owner of BZ Nutrition. “Spices will give your health a boost, but they can’t undo the damage caused by poor eating habits.” But if you’re already starting with a balanced diet, working more spices into your regular kitchen repertoire can be a good idea. We asked experts for their picks:

Turmeric

This vibrant yellow all-star spice has gotten extremely popular lately, thanks to research that shows it can help fight inflammation.

A traditional component of curry powder, its smoky flavor works well in Indian dishes, but is also the ingredient that gives “golden milk lattes” their signature color. Nutritionist Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., also suggests mixing turmeric with ketchup for a kick.

Zeitlin recommends crushing some fresh ground black pepper with it—it will increase your body’s absorption.

Try: Turmeric Chicken-and-Chickpea Soup

Cinnamon

A great way to add sweetness without sugar, cinnamon can help regulate blood sugar by decreasing the amount of glucose that enters the bloodstream. Plus, studies have shown that its aroma alone may help combat stress and improve concentration.

Cinnamon isn't just for desserts (although it is delicious in these Cinnamon-Orange Pinwheels). Mediterranean dishes often use it in combination with other savory spices. Try it in savory dishes like lentil soup or as a rub for meats, or shake some into your coffee. 

Try: Cinnamon-Laced Chili

Saffron

These delicate threads, known for their brilliant yellow hue, could brighten up more than just your plate. They have been show to work as well as popular anti-depressants when taken in larger doses, says Jampolis. Saffron may also support eye health by increasing blood flow to the retina, which can help reduce your risk of age-related macular denegeration.

Saffron is common in Persian cooking and works well in just about any rice dish, from risotto to paella, as well as many desserts.

Try: Orange-Honey Oatmeal with Pistachios, Figs, and Saffron Yogurt

Cayenne pepper

Its active ingredient is capsaicin, a powerful antioxidant that studies have linked to helping prevent chronic illness like cancers. Some research even suggests it may help boost your metabolism.

Sprinkle some onto your avocado toast or eggs for some a.m. heat; add it to stir fries or veggie dishes to keep them from getting boring, says Zeitlin.

Try: Cucumber, Carrot, and Orange Salad with Cayenne Dressing

Za’atar

This Middle Eastern spice blend often includes sumac, ground sesame seeds, thyme, a potent anti-inflammatory and often oregano, which encourages gut health and may help fight the bacteria that causes many ulcers, says Jampolis.

Mix it into yogurt or olive oil for a dip; use it in marinades for chicken or lamb.

Try: Za'atar-Roasted Carrots with Labneh

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