This article is part of the LIBSHOP white paper: the Mediterranean diet for iron health, the summary of which you will find here.
We were often told that we had to eat 5 fruits and vegetables a day. If this method is intended to encourage us to turn more to products from agriculture and not to processed products, poor quality protein or even hydrogenated fats (chips, pastries, sandwich breads, fried…), then it seems commendable in order to tend towards a healthy lifestyle.
But once this step has been taken, we often tend to acclimatize to the same products, in more or less healthy quantities. We sometimes take the opportunity to consume high amounts of certain fructose-rich fruits daily, morning and evening, rather than green vegetables, root vegetables or legumes, for example, which have less impact on blood sugar.
In the same way, when we think of fruits and vegetables, we don't necessarily think of "vegetables" in their entirety, and even less of spices, herbs and other condiments that are often shunned, out of ignorance or laziness. Spices that are commonly found in Mediterranean cuisine, the one we are defending here and which is among the most effective cuisines for health and for the line, but also in Indian and Asian cuisines, most of which derive from elsewhere their origin.
Gold, these spices are a nutritional treasure which, consumed in a holistic logic, that is to say with other plants, can bring a lot of invaluable benefits for health, and for the line. Not only because they contain micronutrients with beneficial properties, but also because as you get used to consuming them, you gradually move away from processed flavor enhancers which can be bad for your figure and your health.
Note: to simplify, we will consider here that the spice is a plant that seasons the dishes, that the herb comes to flavor a dish, and that the condiment enhances it via a strong flavor. Here, we will first look at spices, and more specifically the best of them, but we can look at herbs and condiments in another article.
But before listing this top 10 of the best spices for health, let's first see what the benefits of these spices are and why!
Spices are rich in polyphenols.
One of the main advantages of spices, condiments and herbs, and vegetables in general, but also tea or coffee for example, it is their richness in polyphenols, these compounds that you hear more and more about because their virtues have fascinated scientists, nutritionists and athletes for several years.
Polyphenols are compounds found in plants, which have antioxidant properties, that's to say effects that can delay the aging of our cells.
In other words, polyphenols can slow down aging, and therefore extend life expectancy, by fighting in particular against oxidative stress, that is to say the aggressions suffered by the cells of our body.
Oxidative stress, kesako?
Small aside on oxidative stress. These "attacks" are not necessarily something bad in themselves. An intense sports session, for example, is experienced as an attack by our body, which leads to the production of free radicals.. And free radicals are precisely unstable molecules that the body must be able to neutralize after a certain period of time. And that's where polyphenols come in..
We have taken the example of a sports session, but attacks can take on many other aspects. It can be an allergy, an inflammation, an anxiety, a period of stress, etc… And it is still there that the polyphenols act by attenuating the effects of these aggressions, and by preserving the cells from the famous oxidative stress caused by these aggressions . But polyphenols, these treasures of nature, are not the only allies of our health. Vitamins and minerals are also essential, in often unknown proportions.
Spices are rich in vitamins.
We hear a lot about vitamins, and in the common imagination, we find them in fruit juices, sugary cereals or other nutrients whose daily nutritional value is sometimes questionable.
However, it is in plants that we find an interesting quantity of vitamins for the body, without any negative impact in terms of calories or impact on blood sugar. Moreover, contrary to what one might think, vitamins do not necessarily have an interest in being provided in the form of a "shoot" at a specific moment, but in a sustainable way, over time.
In short, vitamins are organic substances – unlike minerals, with which they share the fact of being micronutrients – which exert essential biochemical properties for the organism, which range from the regulation of metabolism to the release of energy, through the synthesis of bones, tissues, or even immunity.
Vitamins should not be taken in excess, because as always with humans, it's all about dosage and balance. The ideal is therefore to provide it naturally, through a healthy diet. You can also take supplements on the advice of your doctor during difficult periods, such as in winter for example, respecting the doses indicated.
To return to plants, and more particularly to spices, you will have understood that these provide naturally and in reasonable doses the amount of vitamins the body needs to function. Even if plants are in themselves not essential for survival, a diet devoid of plants is a diet devoid of vitamins and fibers, which can lead to slight deficiencies, which could result in general fatigue, episodes of depression, lack of concentration, digestive disorders and general fragility.
Spices are rich in minerals.
Mineral salts have a lot in common with vitamins, because they too have positive effects on general health.
However, the body needs them in infinitesimal quantities, and unlike vitamins, minerals do not come to us from living nature but from rocks and water. Thus, plants pull them from the ground.
Like vitamins, minerals act at the level of metabolism, the structure of the organism, and its functions (cardiac, muscular, neuronal, immune, etc.). This is why it is interesting to extract them from spices and plants, because these contain sufficient quantities for most of them, while supplementation can prove to be dangerous since beyond a certain threshold – difficult to achieve by sprinkling your chicken with ginger and eating salad – the minerals are toxic.
In addition, it is important to remember that minerals act in concert with vitamins.
One of the most famous mineral salts, and one that is generally lacking in our stressful modern societies, is magnesium, closely followed by calcium, sometimes chromium, iron and zinc. The virtues of magnesium and zinc, for example, are invaluable for the relaxation of the muscles, for the rest of the cerebral system, and therefore to be in better shape when your muscles, your brain or your nervous system are put to the test.
In the same spirit, minerals, together with vitamins, are a fabulous support of the immune system, allowing it to fight against the appearance of infections with much more baggage.
Again, no need to draw a picture, by enhancing your dishes with spices, herbs, condiments, you will at least be tending towards a good rebalancing of your vitamins and minerals, with a view to better general health.
The top of the best Mediterranean spices for health
There is obviously a variety of spices and herb mixes that you can consume, and this classification is necessarily restrictive.
But if you only had to keep ten, here they are, and here they are above all with their main virtues, which will allow you to prioritize them according to your health field. They are also often considered "superfoods" by naturopaths, scientists and nutritionists.
But beware, once again, it is by consuming them in a reasonable, holistic way, and in concert with other healthy foods, in a healthy lifestyle, that all of this will have a positive effect on your mind and your health!
In other words, no need to focus on one ingredient, and consume it in excess, because it could well become counterproductive. For example, polyphenols include various compounds which are not all identical, and which do not have the same effects on the body. It would therefore not make sense to consume the same ingredient all the time. It is by diversifying the contributions that we diversify the virtues and allow them to act together.
Ginger is the “superfood” par excellence. Originally from Asia, this spice, discovered probably more than 6,000 years ago and which needs no introduction, is anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, especially when eaten with garlic or onion, two other plants known for their medicinal properties.
Ginger also promotes cardiovascular health and improve the digestion. Rich in zinc, beta-carotene, vitamins B and C, it is known to be antibacterial, antiallergic, anti-inflammatory and help regulate fever.
In summary, ginger will be the best ally against winter infections, and it could be a support – admittedly negligible, but a support all the same – for your heart and vascular health, also for fight against various types of inflammation, which ranges from post-sport recovery to allergies of all kinds. It is also an ideal plant for promote digestion, in herbal tea for example, or as a spice in your meat marinades.
Still in the flagship category of "superfoods", turmeric is anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, improves digestion and protects the liver. We therefore take all the benefits of ginger, to which we add hepatic protection, oh so precious in our modern societies where the liver is put to the test, between excess sugar and meals that are far too caloric.
We lend to the pepper antioxidant properties linked to its great richness in flavonoids (a family of polyphenols, always them) and in vitamin C. It would be anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-cancer and it would be a regulator of blood sugar, via capsaicin, the active ingredient that gives peppers their taste… spicy!
In summary, if you digest it well, and you have an inflammatory condition or you tend to overtax your insulin by eating foods rich in carbohydrates and sugars too often, you will not hesitate to consume time in time of the pepper in order to give character to the dishes while possibly reaping the benefits.
Again, the pepper is anti-inflammatory, it improves digestion, and it increases the production of endorphins, this hormone that provides a feeling of well-being. It's a very good antioxidant, which would have a beneficial action on the liver. Its beneficial properties are very similar to those of pepper, and we will not hesitate to sprinkle our dishes with pepper if we wish to improve our digestion, optimize our recovery and spare our liver, while having fun.
Like turmeric or ginger, saffron is often considered a superfood. It has antioxidant, relaxing properties, and it improves digestion. It is rich in vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin B6 (useful for hemoglobin, protein synthesis, lipid and glycogen metabolism), in iron (again for hemoglobin) and in magnesium, which has many benefits. It is precisely magnesium that is responsible for the relaxing benefits of saffron.
We will therefore favor saffron if, for example, we follow a predominantly vegetarian diet, or any other diet whatsoever, in order to derive benefits from its vitamin B6 intake, athletes will consume it for improve their recovery, people in a stressed or very active mood may also consume it in order to take advantage of its magnesium content, and finally to optimize your iron intake, especially during menstruation.
This garnet-coloured spice, little known in Europe, is used as an aromatic to bring a note of acidity that is much appreciated in Middle Eastern cuisine. It is used in particular in the preparation of Zaatar, a mix of spices containing in particular oregano and thyme. You can sprinkle sumac on grilled meats, poultry or fish. But also in salads, especially the famous oriental fattoush salad.
Sumac is renowned for its digestive, febrifuge (therefore anti-fever) and aperitif properties.. Studies conducted since the 1970s have shown its effect antidiabetic, antioxidant, anticholesterol, hepatoprotective, antiulcer, antibacterial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory. Just that.
Regarding its antidiabetic effect, studies have shown that sumac has strong hypoglycemic properties allowing reduction in blood glucose levels and improving glucose tolerance, which is extremely useful for diabetic and prediabetic patients, but also for those who – rightly – wish control their blood sugar to optimize their figure and their health.
Again, an ancestral spice with medicinal properties. Cumin will be the best ally of people who wish improve their digestion. Cumin has positive digestive and diuretic effects, and it is also a good source of iron and magnesium. Ideal therefore for people with anemic tendency, and for those whose organism is put to the test, both physically and psychically. Magnesium will come to act on the relaxation of the muscles and on the nervous system in order to help them to recover.
Clove is considered by European phytotherapy as antiseptic, anti-infective and antibacterial. It will therefore be a good ally against infections of all kinds, but not only.
This spice is also very useful against urinary tract infections such as cystitis and kidney stones.
And finally, like the other plants mentioned here, it promotes digestion : its aromatic compounds help fight stomach aches, and it has a beneficial effect on dental pain.
However, be careful not to abuse it, because as always in nutrition, too much of it will be dangerous.
We can consume cloves in infusion or powder to spice up dishes and marinades.
Essential in Indian cuisine, where it originated, cardamom is an ancestral spice that is also used in certain Middle Eastern marinades, such as beef chawarma for example, like cloves. And just like the latter, we will consume a small amount, because excess can be harmful.
In terms of virtues, cardamom is a concentrate of benefits. It contains in particular:
- Calcium, essential for bone health, but also for other mechanisms such as muscle contraction, blood clotting or the release of certain hormones.
- Magnesium, for energy, sleep, the heart system and recovery. It is the electrolyte that we are sorely lacking in general.
- Potassium, for the heart system and blood pressure. Electrolyte which is often unbalanced with respect to sodium, often provided in excess by salt in the modern diet.
- Phosphorus for bones and energy.
- Iron, essential for cell oxygenation
- Zinc, mainly useful for immunity and protein synthesis
- And finally vitamin B2 and B6, for energy and the synthesis of hemoglobin in particular.
Thanks to the vitamins and minerals it contains, cardamom is also obviously antioxidant, but also anti-inflammatory, and above all, it helps to digestion, reducing bloating and stomach pain. Convenient for those who often have digestive discomfort or small intolerances.
Like cardamom and cloves, nutmeg is found in certain oriental culinary preparations, but it is not very well known, wrongly. Indeed, this spice, again consumed in moderation, provides a lot of very interesting benefits for the body.
It is a good source of copper, useful for immunity, there synthesis of red blood cells and especially for the collagen. In other words, she's a good ally against infections, and for tissue renewal. It is also a good source of iron, zinc and antioxidants.
Nutmeg is also anti-inflammatory, and she aids digestion and also participate in bone consolidation thanks to its good calcium content.
Another antioxidant spice to perfection. Cinnamon is a natural preventative against the development of certain cancers and other metabolic diseases linked to the aging of the body..
It is also a very good source of iron, essential for oxygen transport and the formation of red blood cells in the blood, which women sorely lack during their period. Cinnamon is a very good source of fibre, and it has anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties.
Finally, another benefit of cinnamon, and certainly not the least, it could lead to a significant decrease in blood glucose and certain blood lipids (total cholesterol, triglycerides, LDL cholesterol). Cinnamon thus appears to be a promising food for the control of diabetes, and as an ally in fat loss.
Finally, it is an interesting spice for the digestion, and it is considered by many nutritionists to be a “superfood”. You can use it for your low-sugar desserts, to replace powdered sugar, for example in Greek yogurt.
Conclusion: in practice
As you will have understood, the first step to take is to let yourself go eat spicier dishes, going gradually and listening to his digestive system. Spicy does not necessarily mean spicy. The spices are there to give flavor, from character to recipes, while doing good to one's health since they are natural, which thus makes it possible to avoid using the same artificial or transformed flavor enhancers that have fed us.
Get rid of ketchup, industrial mayonnaise, excess salt of poor quality, or even addictive products such as glutamate or excess sugar, and make way for healthy plants, which will not only recalibrate the palace to a simpler and more natural food, but also to support the body in terms of health.
This is the whole point of the use of spices in the kitchen. Spices, condiments and herbs are finally there for bring the palate back to flavors that are certainly less obvious, sometimes less addictive but much more subtle, although you can have a lot of fun with chilli, pepper, Guérande salt or other Indian, Asian, or even oriental spices like the famous Zaatar.
Without for all that prohibiting oneself from sometimes consuming more or less unhealthy foods, the idea is to bring the barycentre of taste back to something much healthier, less processed, more subtle and less addictive. Once accustomed to simpler flavors, sometimes also less accessible, such as acid or bitter tastes that we then learn to cultivate, we come to really enjoy food, without needing to empty our table salt, or add a ton of industrial sweet and savory sauces, to satisfy your cravings for "easy" tastes such as sweet or salty.
Conclusion: spices are there to brighten up our palate in a healthy and natural way. So let's have fun!