The ancient trade in spices, incense, and silk paved the way for our global economy. In fact, ongoing European contact with the people of the Western Hemisphere happened because Christopher Columbus was looking for a shortcut to India when he arrived in the Caribbean. Spices, along with other exotic agricultural products and precious metals, drove the European colonial conquests.
In their indigenous growing regions, spices were an important part of the local diets, but until recently in the western world, they were a sign of high social status.
Nutrition: Technically speaking, spices are the highly fragrant bark, bud, fruit, root, seed, or stem part of plants used to flavor food. They do not contain significant micro– or macronutrients, but they are rich sources of bioactive compounds that benefit health, in addition to making food taste better.
FYI: According to the Institute for Global Food Security, some spice companies, trying to maximize profits, adulterate their products with up to 30% non-edible bulking agents.
Storage and Usage Tips: Purchase spices in small quantities and use quickly as their volatile oils degrade rapidly. Replenish your supply of fresh spices at least once per year. To make spices last longer, purchase whole and grind immediately before use with a mortar and pestle; this works especially well with cumin and coriander.
Some spices, including peppercorns, cinnamon, clove, coriander, cumin, fennel seeds, juniper berries, mustard seeds, and star anise, can be toasted to improve or expand their flavors.
FYI: After a 2018 weather event decimated crops in Madagascar, vanilla’s price skyrocketed and has since floated between $400-600 per kilogram, almost as expensive as silver.
Curry powder can be any mix of spices; they are commonly used where many spices originated, SE Asia and India.
Turmeric–Curcumin, the compound that makes turmeric yellow, has been studied widely for its role in reducing inflammation; pair with the piperine in black peppercorns for improved bioavailability.
Saffron–The most expensive spice by weight, each saffron crocus flower produces 3-4 stigma which are the edible portion.
Cinnamon–It is the inner bark of a tree and adds a sweet flavor to foods; research indicates compounds in cinnamon may support heart health and help regulate blood sugar.
Fennel seed–In some cultures, these are chewed post-meal to aid digestion by reducing occasional gas and bloating.
Amber Phillips, MS, RD is a registered dietitian at Island Hospital. She has a Master’s degree in nutrition from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA and a Bachelor’s degree in biology from Metropolitan State University, St. Paul, MN. Phillips has a keen interest in community education. “Nutrition advice can be confusing and sometimes conflicting,” says Phillips. “My role as a dietitian is to follow the latest research and make it easy to understand for my patients and the public.” To schedule an appointment with Phillips, call (360) 299-1300 x2567.