To stay healthy, include natural spices in your diet

Friday April 06 2018
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Beatrice Watetu sells medicinal commodities and spices such as turmeric, garlic and ginger. Other than medicinally, the commodities are also used for flavouring, colouring or extending the shelf-life of food. FILE PHOTO | NMG


A spice is a seed, fruit, root, bark or other plant substances used mainly for flavouring, colouring or extending the shelf-life of food.

There are many spices in the market, however, some of the common natural spices are turmeric, cinnamon, rosemary, garlic and ginger.

Cinnamon and fenugreek

Cinnamon is a dried inner bark of various evergreen trees that belong to the genus Cinnamomum.

Cinnamon contain cinnamaldehyde, cinnamic acid and cinnamate, the chemical compounds which play an important role its medical properties.

Cinnamon improves insulin sensitivity. The volatile oils in cinnamon are used to inhibit fungal and bacterial growth, boost cognitive functions, immunity, reduce risks of cancer and heart diseases.


It is an important anti-oxidant, which lowers cholesterol and triglyceride in blood.

Fenugreek contains 4-hydroxyisoleusine, a protein that improves the functioning of insulin hormone, which regulates blood sugar hence controlling body weight.

A dose of 1g of fenugreek a day reduces blood sugar in diabetics while 1-6g of cinnamon a day reduces serum glucose, triglycerides, low density lipoprotein cholesterol and total cholesterol in type 2 diabetes patients hence reducing risk factors associated with cardiovascular diseases.

Recipes: Cinnamon can be taken in the following forms; add to warm or cold drinks such as yoghurt, warm apple cider, tea and cocoa.

You can also rub on meat as a mix spice with equal parts of cardamon and black pepper or add to warm or cold breakfast cereals or sprinkled on fruits.

It is a bulb of the allium sativa vegetable plant with a characteristic odour and high sulfur content which is used as a flavour in food.

The medicinal properties of garlic has been linked to allicin. It has high levels of potassium, which help in the absorption of vital nutrients and minimises digestive problems and fatigue.

Other health benefits of garlic are: the unique pungent flavour helps in reducing lung and throat problems, boosts the immune system of the body, garlic reduces low density lipoprotein or cholesterol by 10-15 per cent, has anti-viral and antibacterial benefits and lowers risks of colon cancer.

Garlic has also been used in the treatment of atherosclerosis, gastric cancer, and skin disorders such as ringworm, athlete foot and jock itch. A dose of 600–1,500g of garlic spread over 24 weeks is as effective as atenolol in reduction of high blood pressure.

Allicin, a sulfur compound in garlic, protects the body against heavy metal damage.

Recipe: Press fresh garlic into extra olive oil and use in marinade, dipping sauce or salad dressing, add garlic powder or puree to soup and stew, stuff garlic cloves into roasts and used in garlic butter to make garlic bread.


It is a rhizomatous herbaceous perennial plant of Zingiberaceae family and is responsible for the yellow colour of curry powder.

Curcumin is a chemical compound found in turmeric, this compound is responsible for the anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and antioxidant properties of turmeric.

In isolation, absorption of curcumin in blood stream is low, however, the absorption can be enhanced by piperine found in black pepper.

As an anti-inflammatory agent, curcumin attacks the inflammatory pathway, on this pathway, it blocks the NF-kB molecule from accessing the cell nuclei.

It is in the nuclei where the NF-Kb molecule triggers the gene associated inflammation, which causes chronic diseases.

Curcumin has a chemical structure that has the ability to inhibit the three major enzymes (lipoxygenase, cyclooxygenase-2 and inducible nitric oxide synthase) that promote inflammatory process.

Other disorders whose risks can be reduced by curcumin include heart and brain diseases, osteoarthritis, depression, eye swelling, skin cancer and age-related ailments.


It is an herbaceous perennial flowering plant that grows annual stems and whose rhizomes are widely used as spices or folk medicine.

In people with osteoarthritis, a blend of ginger, cinnamon, mastic, and sesame oil has been used to lessen pain and stiffness.

The concoction has the same effect as that of aspirin and ibuprofen. In colon inflammation, 2g of ginger extracts per day has a similar effect as that of aspirin.

This spice has been used also to treat stomach problems, diarrhoea, nausea brought about by seasickness, motion sickness, morning sickness and chemotherapy.

In pregnant women, the effect of ginger on vomiting and morning sickness is better than that of Dramamine; an over-the-counter drug.

Ginger contains gingerol, a compound which acts as an anti-oxidant. It reduces cancer risks by fighting pancreatic cancer cells that are resistant to chemotherapy, inhibiting metastasis of breast cancer cells and decreasing the number and size of colon cancer cells.

Recipes: Used in baked foods, as a sweetened beverage such as ginger ale, can be rubbed on meat before grilling to help tenderise the meat or sprinkle ginger over cooked vegetables or fruits

Ginger inhibits blood clotting, therefore, should not be taken by individuals who are about to undergo surgery. Dose of ginger beyond 600mg may cause stomach irritation.


It is an aromatic herb of the mint family found growing on an evergreen bush with pine needle-like leaves and is commonly used as a spice, air freshener, and for aromatherapy.

Therapeutically, rosemary has been used to speed up healing of wounds, increase circulation, an infusion of rosemary and nettle leaves has been used to get rid of dandruffs and hasten hair growth, oil extracts of rosemary is used to relieve stomach pain emanating from indigestion and menstrual cramps. Medicinal compounds in rosemary are: 1, 8 – cineole which is known to boost brain activity.

Carnosol is an antioxidant compound which is used to lower cancer risks while rosmarinic acid is used to suppress allergy symptoms.

The writer is based at the Department of Dairy, Food Science and Technology, Egerton University.