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Health Benefits of Spices

Until just over a century ago most spices were considered a luxury in those countries that were unable to grow them, while in their countries of origin even the poorest people used them to enhance their meals. Why, we might reasonably ask, with the development of economical, long-distance transport have societies that traditionally use few spices not increased their intake of these delicious foods? The obvious answer is that we like best what we are used to.

As most of us have learned by experience, spices are delicious when used as seasonings, but few of them are considered much of a delicacy when consumed on their own - which was generally the form in which these foods were eaten by our hunter-gatherer ancestors. To most of us, even the thought of eating a ginger root, cinnamon bark, or chewing on a clove is thoroughly unpleasant; but for our ancestors this would not have been much of a hardship. As they were forced to eat them out of necessity, our forebears probably came to enjoy the intense flavour experience that many of these spicy plants provided.

The major factor underlying the difference in tastes between modern and ancient societies and between different cultures today can be attributed simply to conditioning; when one is exposed to a food at a young age or for long enough later on in life, one is more likely to acquire a liking for it. Many of us will have experienced this effect ourselves when, typically as adults, we initially find a novel taste or flavour unpleasant. After subsequent exposure to the same food we begin to find the taste inoffensive and maybe even delicious.

However this does not fully explain the failure of the west to use more spices in processed and home cooking now that they have become cheap and readily available all over the world. One reason is that salt, which has for hundreds of years been an important feature of western diets, is often considered to be enough of a flavor-enhancer. Sugar, too, has become one of the cheapest most ubiquitous flavorants and is added to almost all processed foods. From a very young age our palates have become accustomed to foods that have high salt and sugar content that tends to inhibit the appreciation of other flavours.

Another very important factor is the extensive use by the food industry of artificial-flavors and colorings that became available in the west over the last century. Synthetic flavorings and colorings dramatically enhance the taste and visual appeal of foods, in much the same way that spices have done for thousands of years. They also have the added advantage of being extremely cheap, and have been adopted with alacrity by the manufacturers of the processed food that now constitutes such a large part of our diets. Today synthetic food additives are ubiquitous and feature on the labels of almost all packaged foods. They have no health benefits (and are probably harmful) and it is unfortunate that they have prevented the wider acceptance of their natural, health-promoting counterparts that have become affordable if not quite as inexpensive as synthetic alternatives and widely available all over the world.

The dearth of spices in the diets of those of us living in most Western countries means that we are depriving ourselves of the important spice-derived compounds that have, since time immemorial, provided us with an umbrella of protection against many diseases.

Now that we are beginning to understand just how valuable they are to our health and well-being we no longer have an excuse for not regularly eating cinnamon (with its anti-diabetic effects), basil (with its anti-viral action), turmeric (with its powerful anti-cancer and anti-Alzheimer's disease effects), rosemary (with its cardioprotective action) and the scores of other spices that have these and many other disease preventing properties.

We need to consume a variety of spices on a daily basis as these beneficial food flavorings can make us feel better, think better, age more slowly and help us to resist the onslaught of scourges like cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and other chronic degenerative disorders.

Dr Keith Scott is a medical doctor with a special interest in nutrition. He has written several books including the ground breaking, "Medicinal Seasonings, The Healing Power of Spices" and "Natural Home Pharmacy". Download a free pdf copy of "Medicinal Seasonings" and find out more about the important research that shows how important spices are for our health at: http://www.medspice.com

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