The spices with hidden health benefits

Beat Winter series: Spices will undoubtedly add flavour to your cooking but may also improve your health

Arun Kapil, author of ‘Fresh Spice’ and founder of Green Saffron,  in Green Saffron, Midleton, Co Cork. Photograph: Clare Keogh

Arun Kapil, author of ‘Fresh Spice’ and founder of Green Saffron, in Green Saffron, Midleton, Co Cork. Photograph: Clare Keogh


For centuries spices have been used to add flavour and colour to food – but they have also been known to have wonderful medicinal properties. And while many of our Eastern counterparts have long been aware of this, the health benefits of spices are only just being widely recognised in this part of the world.

Arun Kapil, founder of Green Saffron, lives in Cork. But with an Indian father and a mother from Yorkshire (a curry haven in Britain) he is only too aware of both the delicious flavours and the seemingly miraculous healing qualities of certain spices.  

“I firmly believe the key to healthy eating is having a varied diet, maintaining equilibrium and a strong digestive system,” he says. “Food should be joyous and every meal should be an indulgent, happy experience – Indian cuisine hits all those marks as it’s so very varied.

“It’s rooted in Ayurvedic tradition, which is a 5,000 year-old blueprint for living in harmony with the universe, and good health and diet is a key part of this with spices especially revered for their health-giving and medicinal qualities.

India has been rediscovering the benefits of Ayurveda in the years since occupation and western science is daily proving the very real benefits of this ancient wisdom – which centres around good gut health and maintaining a healthy digestive system, promoting combinations of all taste sensations at every meal sitting; I think it is this philosophy that forms the foundation of a healthy diet.”

Tumeric is grown in India, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia
Tumeric is grown in India, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia

Kapil, who learned to cook as a child and has long been aware of the diversity of spices, says Irish people are becoming more interested in eastern cooking, particularly as the seasons change and winter looms.

“When I was a child, while most children had model planes, I had spices as my mother thought it was important that my two brothers and I learned to cook,” he says. “In India, as with Ireland, people in general have a greater understanding of where their food comes from and this is fundamental to eating healthily. An awareness of what we put into our tummies and its nutritional value is important to maintaining an overall healthy outlook.

“I believe people are becoming more aware of spice, a healthy diet and India as [having] a credible, beautiful cuisine. Those that can are travelling more, experiencing more varied dishes on their journeys and are becoming more discerning and more inquisitive as they start to feel the benefits of a varied diet for themselves. They want to replicate the tastes and benefits in their own home cooking.”

 Arun, who is married to Olive, began transporting spices from India more than a decade ago and this became the basis of Green Saffron, which is now on sale throughout the country and in Europe.  He believes everyone can and should incorporate spices into their everyday cooking as not only will it enhance flavour, but may be the secret to good health.

 “I learned to combine spices at a young age from Dad, Indian aunts and ‘masaalchi’ [spice grinders] during frequent family trips to India,” he says. “So I’ve been around spices all my life. I love their notes, cultivation, science, history, vibrancy and un-predictability – they’re a part of me, from birth to stove. Spice can define flavour and the right blend can transform, lift and enhance a dish to become something really quite spectacular without fuss or fanfare.

“At the same time, they are rich in a diverse range of phytochemicals, many of which have been suggested to possess health conferring bio-activities. The purported health benefits of these are numerous and include the promotion of gut, immune and brain health. And historically, in the Indian subcontinent, many of these spices have also been used to treat a myriad of ailments and to improve overall health in Ayurvedic medicine.

Spices – the health bonus

Cardamom: Its therapeutic properties include antiseptic, antispasmodic, carminative, digestive, diuretic, expectorant and stimulant.

Cassia: The sweet aromatic fragrance of Eugenol has local anaesthetic and antiseptic properties.

Cloves: Its active principles are reputed to have antioxidant, antiseptic, local anaesthetic, anti-inflammatory, soothing and anti-flatulent properties. It also increases gut motility and digestion power through improved gastrointestinal enzyme secretions.

Coriander: The active principles of the coriander fruit are responsible for digestive and anti-flatulent properties.

Cumin: Cumin has high iron content and highly reputed digestive properties. The active principles may improve gut motility and help in digestion by augmenting gastrointestinal juice secretions.

Cumin oil, black: Black cumin oil is beneficial for both topical use on skin problems and boils and for digestion.

Fennel: rich in anti-oxidants

Fennel: Fennel fruits contain numerous flavonoid anti-oxidants which function as powerful antioxidants by removing harmful free radicals from the body.

Fenugreek seeds: It has recently been discovered to have blood-sugar regulating properties and can help slow down the rate of glucose absorption in the intestines – so is therefore one of the recommended food ingredients in the diabetic diet.

Ginger: Historically, ginger was a popular medicinal ingredient with Romans as it has excellent digestive properties and fresh ginger as a tea or gently chewed can cure motion sickness and relieve morning sickness.

Ginger was a popular medicinal ingredient with Romans
Ginger was a popular medicinal ingredient with Romans

Mustard seeds, black: Mustard seeds aid digestion, clear congestion, help with asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, stomach cramps, excess gas and increase appetite and lower blood pressure. Gargle with mustard seed infused water to relieve sore throats.

Nutmeg: The active principles in nutmeg have many therapeutic applications in many traditional medicines as anti-fungal, anti-depressant, aphrodisiac, digestive, and carminative functions.

Onion seeds, black: Onion seeds have a variety of beneficial properties, mainly based around cleansing the blood and regulating sugar levels. There is evidence from a limited number of animal studies to suggest that black onion seeds may have anticonvulsant effects; protect against stroke-induced brain damage, improve memory and combat MS symptoms.

Peppercorns, black pepper: Black pepper has been in use for centuries for their anti-inflammatory, carminative, anti-flatulent properties. Peppercorns are a good source of many anti-oxidant vitamins such as vitamin-C and vitamin-A. They are also rich in flavonoid polyphenolic anti-oxidants which help the body remove harmful free radicals and help protect from cancers and diseases.

Saffron: Saffron contains important antioxidants that help protect the human body.

Turmeric: Grown in India, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, this is a truly wonderful spice, proven to have beneficial effects as an anti-rheumatoid, anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogen.

Vanilla: Vanilla extract contains small amounts of B-complex groups of vitamins such as niacin, pantothenic acid, thiamin, riboflavin and vitamin B-6. These vitamins help in enzyme synthesis, nervous system function and regulating body metabolism.

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