Spice Research Reveals Benefits

Nov. 19, 2007
If you can stand the heat, you just may hang around the kitchen a little longer. That’s the message coming out of the research into the benefits of our favorite spices.

Spicy is in. Not merely as a way to tickle the palate or define an ethnic cuisine, or even to preserve food (an original motivation for spicing). Increasingly, we are learning that the instinct to "kick it up a notch" is a healthy one. But first things first: What exactly is a spice?

Traditionally, spices are defined as the dried seeds, fruits, roots, pieces of bark or other vegetable substances used in nutritionally insignificant quantities to flavor and preserve food and to prevent the growth of pathogenic bacteria. They are distinguished from herbs, which are leafy green plant parts used for flavoring, and from salt, which is a mineral.

Humans have a historic relationship with spice that can be traced to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. We find mention of spice traders in the book of Genesis, the Song of Solomon and the Hindu epic of Ramayana. By about 4,000 years ago, the trade of cinnamon and pepper burgeoned throughout the Middle East.

Oleoresins from a spice's volatile oils can be substituted readily where ground or solid flavorings would negatively impact texture. Their consistency also allows for more finely tuned flavor solutions.

During the Middle Ages, spices such as ginger, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and peppers of all varieties were considered luxurious commodities. And when Venice demanded too much money for spices, Vasco de Gamma sailed to India to open spice routes for Spain and Portugal. Even Christopher Columbus got his investors excited about the prospect of spices from the New World - which he "discovered" while looking for a new spice route to India.

Back then, we spiced for taste, food preservation (many spices possess antimicrobial effects stronger than pharmaceutical antibiotics) and medicinal value (which was steeped in tradition). Today, there are additional motivational forces driving us to continue the spice trade. They include a wealth of studies showing how spices weigh in on the major health concerns of the day. In fact, the health potential of spices is so great some spice companies are sponsoring their own research programs.

"Many spices are known for their antioxidant properties, especially in the test tube," says Guy Johnson, executive director of the McCormick Scientific Institute. The institute, a separate entity from McCormick & Co. (www.mccormickflavor.com), Hunt Valley, Md., both sponsors research and communicates the benefits of herbs and spices to the public. "We are interested in the practical application of that health potential. What are the specific compounds? What is their bioavailability? What is the effect of processing? Do different spices act synergistically to increase the antioxidant effect?"

Spicing up health

A study reported last summer in the British Journal of Nutrition showed regular consumption of chili pepper (30g/day; 55 percent cayenne) increased the resistance of serum lipoproteins to oxidation in healthy human volunteers. This confirmed in vitro studies showing extracts of capsaicin (the active ingredient in peppers) protect LDL cholesterol and linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid) form oxidation. Oxidized LDLs are a major risk factor in cardiovascular disease.

Another area of ongoing research into the benefits of spice concerns inflammation. "Inflammation is one of the early negative occurrences of the disease state," says Johnson. "If inflammation can be controlled, many conditions - such as cancer, heart disease and others - can be positively affected."

In "Spicing Up of the Immune System by Curcumin," published in December in the Journal of Clinical Immunology, Drs. Ganesh Jagetia and Bharat Aggarwal at the Cytokine Research Laboratory of The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, reviewed the research on curcumin, the orange-yellow component of the traditional spice turmeric. Turmeric is often prescribed in traditional Ayurvedic medicine as an anti-inflammatory agent.

The Habanero chili pepper, and its close cousin the Scotch bonnet, are among the hottest peppers grown. Yet they've also experienced a spike in demand in formulations.

Research over the past two decades shows curcumin to be a potent modulator of the immune system, affecting the activation of T cells, B cells, macrophages, neutrophils, natural killer cells and dendritic cells. Curcumin also can slow the production of various pro-inflammatory chemicals collectively known as cytokines and chemokines.

Researchers believe curcumin accomplishes all this by inactivating a protein called transcription factor NF-ĸB, responsible for an abnormal inflammatory response. It's the abnormal inflammatory response that increases the risk of diseases such as cancer, arthritis, allergies, asthma, atherosclerosis, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease and diabetes.

"I'm excited about the research that links modern science to ancient Ayurvedic medicine," says Winston Boyd, technical director and business development manager for Food Ingredient Solutions LLC (www.foodcolor.com), Teterboro, N.J. Boyd has studied antioxidants and other healthful properties of spices for more than 30 years.

A 2003 study reported in Diabetes Care demonstrated cinnamon lowers fasting serum glucose, triglycerides (blood fats), LDL and total cholesterol in patients with type-2 diabetes. More recently, a study, at the University of Lund, Sweden, and published in the January American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed healthy subjects eating rice pudding spiked with only 6g of cinnamon reduced both after-meal blood sugar and gastric emptying (the rate at which food leaves the stomach). Moreover, gastric emptying could account for only part of the cinnamon effect on blood sugar.

Role in weight control

Another area of interest in spices is weight control. Can spices be used to increase satiety of foods or make foods with low caloric density more palatable? That was suggested by a study conducted at Maanstricht University in the Netherlands, as reported in the December 2005 International Journal of Obesity.

Spices and other flavorings are not only riding the "good for you" trend wave, but extending their reach into the megahot organic trend.

The study, "Sensory and gastrointestinal satiety effects of capsaicin on food intake," looked at what happens when healthy subjects consumed an appetizer with 0.9g red pepper (containing 0.25 percent capsaicin) before each meal. It turns out the hot stuff decreased calorie intake by 10-16 percent. These are just a few studies that highlight the "nutritionally insignificant quantities" part of the spice-health equation.

The health potential of spices is part of a getting-back-to-roots movement. "Perhaps more than ever before, it is important to the success of major food manufacturers to understand the signature tastes of many ethnic flavor profiles, particularly those depending on savory spices," says Lisa Brown, director of marketing for Old World Spices and Seasonings Inc. (www.oldworldspices.com), Kansas City, Mo. "These flavor profiles usually are a specific combination of spices, herbs and seasoning blends drawn from agricultural communities around the world."

A matter of tradition

Dhiraj Arora understands the signature tastes of the Indian cuisine. He learned its subtle art watching his mother prepare homemade spice blends. With Indian foods and restaurants and foods fast becoming popular in the U.S., it was a small leap for the entrepreneur to see the value in providing authentic Indian spice blends to those without the time or knowledge to create them.

In 2001, Arora launched Arora Creations Inc. (www.aroracreations.com), New York.  Its mission is to provide consumers with master Indian spice blend recipes to prepare healthy, convenient Indian dishes in minutes.

Asian traditions stimulated much of the research into the health benefits of spices and led innovative ingredient providers to recreate the feeling of tradition in modern formulations. "Mastertaste's oleoresins are standardized, liquid spice and herb extracts that contain volatile and nonvolatile components," says Karen Manheimer, vice president of the Natural Products Division at Mastertaste (www.mastertaste.com), Teterboro, N.J. "They add uniform color, flavor, aroma and impact to many of our customers' formulations.

"Many processors prefer our oleoresins to whole herbs and spices because they are more concentrated and have a longer shelf life, yet still achieve the desired flavor profile," she continues. "Oleoresins also offer instant flavor release and dispersion. You don't need to bite into a spice particle to get the flavor."

The lure of spice runs throughout the food industry. "We are seeing many of our customers drawn to experiment with ethnic flavor profiles   the latest being Indian and Moroccan," continues Manheimer. "The spices typical to these cuisines cover a wide range of flavors and include cinnamon, ginger, cumin, coriander, turmeric, chili and garlic. Flavors from tandoori and curry, for example, have seen an increase in popularity recently. These spices in particular have high levels of phytochemicals, and so offer health benefits in addition to the exotic flavor consumers are looking for."

Our spicy roots can be felt along the entire food chain. "Consumers are looking to bring their restaurant and travel experiences home by duplicating exotic flavors and ethnic dishes," says Tania Biswas, senior brand manager at The Spice Hunter (www.spicehunter.com), San Luis Obispo, Calif. "They're also interested in where their spices come from   the more authentic the source the better. We have a number of new products tying into these trends, including smoked paprika inspired by Spanish dishes."

The new Spice Hunter Flavor Discoveries line, which hit retail shelves in September, offers South American, Mediterranean and Asian flavors in blends and rubs. The top sellers from the collection include Turkish Cumin, French Thyme, Red Pepper, Herbes de Provence, Basil and Highland Harvested Saigon Cinnamon. Also, organic spices grew by 21 percent over last year.

The consumer factor

As with all food and beverage categories, the recent consumer organic consciousness has influenced the spice world. "Consumers committed to buying organics are always looking for organic alternatives for everyday needs," says Brett Karminski, brand manager for Frontier Natural Products Co-op (www.frontiercoop.com), Norway, Iowa. "Organic spices and seasonings provide consumers with great tasting and sustainable options to flavor their meals.

"Two major trends driving growth in the seasonings category are ethnic and hot and spicy," continues Karminski. "As more consumers venture into cooking at home, they are expanding their culinary horizons and looking to add heat to their spicy dishes. For example, sales of cayenne pepper grew at an annual rate of 42 percent during the past 12 months."

"The consumer's request for convenience is one of the main factors contributing to increased product selection in the seasonings category," says Kory Kazimour, Simply Organic senior brand manager at Frontier Natural Products. As consumers look for more convenient ways to prepare meals, they are drawn to products that eliminate the time and complexity of creating great tasting dishes.

"Media attention on healthy eating and meal preparation has contributed to the growth of spices and seasoning mixes. The more you can show consumers how to use seasonings, the more likely they are to experiment with exotic flavors," adds Kazimour.

The drive toward using spices more - and more spices - in formulations can be part of a natural desire to return to more comforting, sustaining foods. Consumers are picking up on that and on their ethnic traditions to use spices to create new eating preferences. Processors can take advantage of the extensive variety of flavor and marketing possibilities available in this healthful ingredient category.

Note to Plant Ops
Beware of the short half-life of most spices. Spices can be expensive, so get the most from them. The volatile oils that give spices flavor and strength are easily dissipated and lost. Store them in a cool, dark, dry location in airtight containers - vacuum-packed, if possible. If you can, purchase whole spices on premises and grind immediately before use. Properly stored pre-ground spices must be used within a few months; whole spices within six months.