Healthful Properties of Spices

Posted By SHL Librarian

Presented by: Alison Ryan, MS, RD, CSO, CNSC
Registered Dietician
Stanford University Medical Center
March 27, 2014

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Spicing your food is one of the easiest ways to enhance flavor without adding calories, sodium, or fat, But it’s not only your waistline that can benefit from the addition of herbs and spices. Herbs and spices have been shown to provide numerous health benefits—from boosting immunity to controlling blood sugar, aiding digestion, lowering blood pressure, and easing joint pain.

For thousands of years, the seeds, bark, leaves, roots, and other parts of plants have been used to flavor foods and for medicinal purposes. Their strong colors and intense flavors provide concentrated doses of chemical compounds important for health.

“Herbs and spices have numerous benefits, but some are more potent than others,” said Alison Ryan, MS, RD, a registered dietician with the Stanford Cancer Institute, who spoke at a presentation sponsored by the Stanford Supportive Care program. “In most cases, the brighter the color, the better. To get the full benefit, it’s important to use a variety and learn the best option for how to prepare them.”

Most of these dietary additives are loaded with antioxidants, which the body uses to neutralize free radicals, providing protection against cell damage from metabolism and environmental factors. They appear to play a part in apoptosis, a regulatory system that keeps cell division in check. (Cancer arises when mutated cells multiply without this control.) And they help control the formation and repair of new blood vessels, a process called angiogenesis.

They also appear to have anti-inflammatory benefits, helping to reduce chronic inflammation and pain. While acute inflammation is a protective response against infection or injury, chronic inflammation produces an immune response that causes low-grade damage over time and is associated with almost all chronic conditions, including cancer and heart disease. In chronic conditions, the immune response does not regulate its response properly and keeps inflammatory proteins called cytokines on “high alert.”

Herbs and spices are loaded with phytonutrients, plant compounds that seem to help prevent disease and keep metabolism working properly. There are thousands of different phytonutrients that work as antioxidants, reduce cancer risk, and reduce inflammation. Most of the time, the bright color of many spices indicates concentrated levels of phytonutrients, said Ms. Ryan, including polyphenols, carotenoids, lycopene, phytosterol, and flavonoids.

“You don’t need to know the exact active compounds,” she said. “Just think that, ‘I should eat more of these.’”

While there are no specific guidelines as to how much to use, she recommended that herbs and spices should be used generously and creatively.

She discussed the strengths of several different herbs and spices, and gave suggestions for how to match them with other flavors to make it easy to add them into your diet.

Studies have shown that cinnamon lowers blood sugar and aids in insulin response, a boon to people with type 2 diabetes. It also has powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-tumor properties, and appears to lower vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), a chemical signal produced by cells that stimulates blood vessel growth, a factor in cancer development.

  • Add to applesauce, fruit, oatmeal, yogurt, or coffee, or put a pinch in savory dishes.

A relative of ginger, turmeric has been used for thousands of years as an antiseptic and antibacterial agent to treat infection, inflammation, wound healing, and poor digestion. It contains curcumin, which has been shown to promote apoptosis and inhibit growth of various cancer cells, particularly breast, and prostate. It also activates vitamin D receptors, which may help cancer patients, who tend to be deficient in vitamin D. The benefits of turmeric are enhanced when used with black pepper, which promotes maximum absorption.

  • Add to eggs, lentil soup, or mayonnaise; mix into water when cooking rice.

This member of the allium family is the most clinically studied and is loaded with pluses. It stimulates the immune system, increases apoptosis and reduces angiogenesis. It lowers LDL and total cholesterol levels, and has been shown to protect against stomach cancer and reduces the risk of developing colon cancer. It’s most potent when used raw and chopped, and allowed to sit for 10 to 15 minutes before using to release its phytochemical allicin.

  • Add to pasta, tomato sauce, beans, meat, and poultry; mix in with salad dressing.

The spice is well known for myriad health benefits: It’s a powerful anti-inflammatory, lowers blood sugar, slows blood clotting, and increases levels of antioxidants. A versatile addition to both sweet and savory dishes, ginger contains several phytochemicals— gingerol, shogaol, terpene, and melatonin—that have shown strong anticancer activities in both laboratory and clinical studies.

  • Grate into stir fries, vinaigrette, baked goods, or carrots; slice into coins for tea.

Related to mint, fragrant rosemary is a rich source of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that help boost the immune system and improve blood circulation. It contains the phytonutrients carvacol and thymol that appear to fight off free radical damage in the brain.

  • Rub onto chicken, meat, or potatoes before cooking; add into marinades for poultry or fish.


  • Oregano has extremely high levels of antioxidants and antimicrobial compounds, and protects cells from oxidative damage and DNA mutations. It contains the phytochemicals  carvacrol, rosmarinic acid, and thymol, which are known to slow cancer growth
  • Add to salad dressing, soup, tomato sauce, or seafood.

Studies have shown other healthful additions to the diet include parsley, which has shown anti-tumor characteristics in lung cancer and breast cancer; and cayenne pepper contains capsaicin, a phytonutrient involves with cell cycle arrest in breast cancer and slowed cell growth in prostate cancer.

Ms. Ryan also suggested adding green tea to your cooking repertoire: It has been shown to modulate VEGF, and minimize numerous cancers in both animal and clinical studies—including bladder, colon, stomach, and pancreatic. It lowers blood pressure, improves mood, and enhances glucose tolerance, which may aid in weight loss. Don’t drink it so hot that it burns your mouth and throat, and if taking iron, she advised to separate it from tea consumption because the compounds compete with each other.

“Be open to trying new ways to add these beneficial herbs and spices to you diet,” she said.

About the Program
The Ernest Rosenbaum Cancer Survivorship Lecture Series is named after the noted oncologist who established the cancer supportive care program at Stanford and the comprehensive cancer care program at UCSF’s Mount Zion Hospital. He wrote more than 25 books on cancer, most of them about living through treatments and life after cancer. This program was one of a series sponsored by the Stanford Supportive Care Program.

For More Information:

Stanford Health Library can do the searching for you. Send us your medical questions.

Cancer Institute Nutrition Services

Cancer Supportive Care

Stanford Cancer Institute

Stanford Prevention Research Center

McCormick Science Institute

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center-Integrative Medicine

Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Research for Optimum Health