Spices for Health & Enjoyment
Are Spices Good for Your Health?
One of the ways being considered by scientists to combat the pandemic of Type 2 diabetes and associated medical conditions such as high cholesterol is the use of spices and other plant products. It is thought that adding certain spices to your recipes greatly increases the salutary effects of the food you eat.
For example, Piperine from black pepper is beneficial in lowering glucose in diabetes. Reservattrol and Rutin from multiple plant sources increase insulin sensitivity. Berberine from Berberies (Oregon grape, California poppy) improves insulin resistance. Citral from Lemongrass reduces LDL cholesterol. Curcumin from Turmeric reduces LDL cholesterol. Capsicin, the main active ingredient of chili pepper, has anti-obesity and antihypertensive effects. Consumption of fresh spices containing vitamin A, K and B6 for 1 or 2 days a week is credited with lower risk of death compared to not eating them, along with lower risk of diseases such as cancer.
However, the evidence for the benefits of these spices comes from small clinical trials, animal-based studies or traditional medical practices. On the other hand, it is inconceivable that generations of humans would have consumed spices without acquiring beneficial nutrients from them.
Using India as a Test Case
So much evidence appears to support the theory that spices help people combat diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and its complications. One way to determine the degree of benefit from spices is to study people in my country, India, who still commonly use many spices on a daily basis. Do they have fewer of the above-mentioned medical conditions?
The answer is: No, they do not. Let me tell you how I know this.
I grew up in a small town in southern India eating meals my mother prepared multiple times daily. She cooked brown rice that provided almost 70% of calories in our diet, along with side dishes of one vegetable and some variety of lentils. Both side dishes were prepared with at least five different spices that were sautéed in a pan using coconut oil and then added to each preparation. All dishes were based on age-old recipes.
With each meal, we also had one or two very small servings of pickle made from vegetables such as chili, mango or lime, to be eaten sparingly. They were usually made with coconut oil or vinegar with plenty of added salt and at least ten spices selected to complement the main vegetable. We ate eggs, meat or fish at the most twice weekly, while people who were considered upper-middle class or rich ate these three times weekly or more.
When I joined the medical school in my home state in India 50 years ago, I did not see abdominal obesity in the medical clinic in a person younger than sixty years of age unless he belonged to the upper-middle class or richer. We hardly saw diabetes or heart attack in people considered working class or middle class. Alzheimer’s disease was extremely rare.
However, at present, in my birthplace, a majority of people over age fifty who are considered middle class have abdominal obesity. Almost 50% of those considered upper middle class or wealthy has high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, or both. The incidence of heart attack and Alzheimer’s disease is a common occurrence.
So what could be the explanation for this finding if people in India are still consuming spices that are supposed to confer health benefits? Their eating patterns are still the same as they have been for centuries. People still consume vegetables, lentils and pickles prepared the same traditional ways as before.
There are, however, four differences today than in the past.
- First, more people today can afford to have more side dishes made with vegetables, eggs, fish or meat than their ancestors could, so they are consuming more calories in their regular meals than in the past.
- Second, most middle- and upper-class Indians now eat refined white rice instead of brown rice because they can afford the higher price for white rice which is considered more desirable. But refined white rice digests into glucose more quickly than brown rice resulting in elevation of blood sugar faster than consumption of an equal amount of brown rice. However, keep in mind that the total amount of rice consumed determines the total calories absorbed into the body during a meal.
- Third, a meal today is not considered complete without a dessert made almost invariably with grain flour, oil or butter, nuts or fruits and added sugar. Eating a dessert at the end of a meal was never practiced when I was growing up. We ate sweets or snacks during teatime at least three hours after a meal.
- Finally, alcohol consumption has become more common among the middle class compared to fifty years ago due to the availability and affordability of a variety of fermented and distilled beverages.
Spice is Nice, but Only if You Don’t Overconsume
In my view, the most logical conclusion we can make by looking at what is happening in India is that, no matter where you live, unless you reduce total calorie intake, the use of spices will not give you the health benefits you are looking for.
In my old country (India), too many calories are being added to the traditional complex carbohydrate-rice-based diet by the middle class that come from increasingly frequent consumption of protein and fat, items that were formerly sparingly consumed fifty years ago. In my new country (USA), it is the overconsumption of bread, pasta, noodles, rolls, snacks and other food items made with grain, grain products and added sugar that is the culprit in adding excess calories.
So, in my view, since grains were never intended for human consumption, avoidance of grain, grain products and added sugar is the best way to reduce calorie intake wherever you live.
In the end, I am very much in favor of spicing up your food, but any form of overconsumption is bound to reduce their effectiveness in preventing type 2 diabetes and other diseases.