You’ll never believe what a few simple spices and seasonings can do for your body.
By Alisa Hrustic
These days, everything is touted as a superfood. One day it’s coconut oil, the next it’s matcha. How do you separate the truly healthy from the overhyped?
One way to start: Look inside your pantry. Many of the superfoods you should be eating every day are already hiding there. While it may not seem like a dash of cinnamon or teaspoon of garlic can make a sizeable impact on your health, the combined effort of your favorite cooking staples can pack a major nutritional punch.
Here are six seemingly insignificant kitchen staples that are loaded with a lifetime of health benefits—and the simplest, most delicious ways you can start eating more of them today.
This Indian spice helps give curry its bold color and flavor. It also doubles as an anti-inflammatory, do-it-all spice that also works in soups, smoothies, and even lattes.
Why can’t we get enough? Because it’s loaded with free radical-fighting antioxidants like curcumin, says Natalie Rizzo, M.S., R.D. When too many free radicals build up in your body, they can make your cells duplicate or cause inflammation—and that’s when serious conditions like heart disease and cancer start to form, Rizzo explains.
Turmeric also has brain benefits. Several studies suggest that curcumin might play a big role in treating Alzheimer’s disease. It’s worth noting that many of these studies use high, concentrated doses of turmeric, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you miss out on the benefits when you use smaller amounts in your own cooking.
How to use it: Add a teaspoon or two to your typical dusting of salt and pepper before roasting your vegetables, suggests Rizzo. Your veggies are already stacked with antioxidants on their own, so you’ll be giving them an extra nutrition and flavor boost.
No spice embodies autumn quite like cinnamon, which seamlessly adds that bit of seasonal flavor to your favorite desserts and drinks during the colder months. But tasty treats aside, cinnamon is just plain good for you: Research shows it’s chock-full of flavonoids, an antioxidant with anti-inflammatory effects.
Plus, scientists say concentrated doses of cinnamon can improve your cholesterol, triglycerides (a type of fat in your blood), and blood sugar levels.
So will a dash of cinnamon do the trick? “It might not lower your blood sugar directly, but if you’re using it to replace sugar, it could be hugely helpful,” says Nathan Myers, M.S., R.D., clinical dietitian at James J. Peters VA Medical Center. “It does mimic the sweetness without adding any calories.”
How to use it: Next time you reach for you daily cup of Joe, sweeten the stuff with a tablespoon of cinnamon instead of sugar, suggests Myers. It’s a healthy, easy, and tasty way to sneak some of the spice every day.
This Italian seasoning contains a ton of disease-fighting antioxidants, possibly more so than fruits and vegetables, suggests research in the Journal of Nutrition.
Plus, oregano (and pretty much any green herb) has vitamin C, Rizzo says. Think about it: Your dried herbs were once bright, green plants loaded with good-for-you nutrients. Vitamin C, for instance, helps boost your immune system, while vitamin A—which is also usually found in dried herbs—helps keep your eyes and skin healthy, says Rizzo.
Oregano may also help you fight type 2 diabetes, since it has compounds that can help lower your blood sugar levels, finds a study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. This obviously depends on how much of it you’re eating, says Myers, but when you pair oregano with another diabetes-fighting food (like cinnamon), they may work together to produce a greater, more pronounced effect.
How to use it: If you’re already using oregano in pasta dishes, think beyond Italy. The herb also tastes great mixed with traditional Mexican flavors, says Rizzo. If you’re preparing fresh salsa, sprinkle in some oregano to taste.
From salads to grilled vegetables, roasted garlic quickly kicks any meal up a notch. What price bad breath? Well, garlic is a true superfood. Several studies show an association between garlic consumption and a reduced risk for stomach, colorectal, pancreatic, and breast cancers, which is why it’s one of the few foods recognized by the National Cancer Institute for its health benefits.
In fact, when women in the 40,000-strong Iowa Women’s Health study consumed the highest amounts of garlic, they had a 50 percent lower risk of colon cancer than those who had the lowest levels. Some of these preventive effects may stem from allicin, a chemical component that contributes to garlic’s signature smell and flavor, says Myers.
Raw garlic is also a prebiotic-rich food, meaning it helps feed the probiotics (good-for-you bacteria) in your gut. “There are so many microorganisms in our gut, and they can affect your immune system, weight, and susceptibility to disease,” Rizzo explains. That’s why having a healthy and diverse amount of gut bacteria will keep you healthier for longer.
How to use it: For a creative way to get more garlic in your diet, try this method that both Rizzo and Myers love: Drizzle garlic cloves with olive oil and roast at 425 to 450 degrees Fahrenheit until they’re brown and soft. The result is a garlic paste that tastes amazing as an alternative to cheese, mixed in with a bean dip or hummus, or slathered on a sandwich instead of mayo.
Ever wonder why your mom made you drink ginger ale when your stomach was upset? That home remedy is backed by science; research suggests that ginger helps aid digestion and keeps your stomach feeling good, says Rizzo.
Ginger also offers beneficial antioxidants, so it too has anti-inflammatory properties that help protect your body from chronic diseases.
Most notably, ginger seems to be a natural pain reliever. In a University of Georgia study, researchers had more than 70 people supplement their diet with 2 grams of encapsulated ginger for nearly 2 weeks. About halfway through, they had the study participants lift heavy weights, which resulted in muscle soreness. The scientists discovered that taking ginger daily eased the subjects’ post-workout pain by 25 percent.
Best of all, ginger adds serious flavor to food without dragging a ton of calories along with it, says Myers. “I love to combine cinnamon and ginger,” he says. “They kind of make a power couple.”
How to use it: Myers loves this simple, healthy beverage: Chop up a few thumb-sized pieces of ginger root and boil it in some water to create a tea. Combine it with cinnamon to taste if you’d like a sweeter drink. Sip it hot, or if you want to make an iced tea, let it cool in the fridge and add some orange or lemon slices for an extra dose of flavor and vitamin C.
6. Canola Oil
You know by now that olive oil is good for your heart—but it’s not the only oil that your ticker will love. While olive oil makes for delicious marinades and salads, it has a lower “smoke point,” meaning it tends to burn more easily at a lower temperature, Myers says. That can mess with the flavor of your food, and even some of the oil’s healthful properties.
Enter canola oil. It’s a bit more neutral in flavor and has a higher smoke point, making it easier to work with. On top of that, you get similar nutritional perks.
“Canola oil is surprisingly healthy,” says Myers. “It has about the same monounsaturated fat content as olive oil, which can help lower your cholesterol and triglycerides. It actually has more polyunsaturated fatty acids, which can also help control your cholesterol but in a different way. So when you have both, you’re getting the combined benefits of each type of fat.”
Plus, replacing artery-clogging trans fats with the healthy fats found in canola oil is better for your heart health, says the American Heart Association.
Overall, healthy fat is a key player in a balanced diet. It keeps you feeling fuller for longer, so you’re less likely to overeat, says Rizzo. That means the scale will work in your favor, according to a study in the journal Obesity. After Penn State researchers had 100 overweight people drink oil-spiked smoothies for a month, they found that those who downed canola oil lost a quarter pound of belly fat.
How to use it: Opt for canola oil whenever olive oil doesn’t seem to fit the flavor you’re going for. Use a tablespoon as the base for your stir-fry, or coat your favorite vegetables in it before roasting them, suggests Myers. Just keep in mind that any oils—even the healthy ones—are still high in calories, so pay attention to portion size.