29th January 2018

Spices – Could they have Nutritional Benefits?

Alteration in taste is relatively common in ageing and is often associated with other sensory impairments (like smell), poorer health and functional problems. Taste changes are amplified in those on multiple medications and who are chronically ill. Taste will also change in people who wear full or partial dentures, and in those who suffer from xerostomia (the scientific term for dry mouth).

It has been suggested that loss of taste may compromise nutrition and increase the risk of malnutrition.

To try and help overcome diminished taste ability, spices can be used as a tool to impart stronger flavours and may provide a better solution than salt, where high intake is associated with increased blood pressure. Spices have been used for millennia in cuisine to flavour dishes but scientific interest in their effects on health has increased in recent years.

What does the Science say About Some of the Most Popular Spices we use Today?

  • Cinnamon has been suggested to have benefits for those with type 2 diabetes. Some studies have shown cassia cinnamon (cinnamon bark) to improve blood sugar regulation, help increase the body’s response to insulin and lower blood cholesterol and blood fats in people with this condition. We need longer-term studies to demonstrate a real health benefit, as well as to determine the amount that would need to be consumed. But why not try sprinkling cinnamon on cereal (it’s delicious in porridge with slices of banana), or on top of a milky coffee
  • Cumin is a main component of curry powder and garam masala. A number of studies have investigated the effects of black cumin seeds (Nigella sativa) on a wide range of known risk factors for heart disease including blood cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar control. These seeds are a rich source of ‘heart healthy’ unsaturated fatty acids and contain antioxidants which could also help protect against heart disease. However, we need more research as the few findings from studies are inconsistent
  • Ginger is widely used to flavour food across the world and has traditionally been used for a variety of gastrointestinal complaints. There is evidence that ginger may alleviate the symptoms of nausea and vomiting associated with pregnancy, surgery, cancer therapy, or motion sickness. The polyphenols gingerol and shagaols are the main active compounds in ginger but the exact mechanism by which it prevents nausea isn’t clear. To settle nausea, adding ginger, freshly grated or in powdered form to foods or ginger tea, could be tried
  • Black pepper is a great substitute to salt to add flavour at the table. If you are adding it during cooking, it may be best to do this towards the end as it loses its flavour and aroma if cooked for too long. The distinctive taste of black pepper is attributed to the active compound piperine. Some studies have also shown piperine to stimulate enzymes which aid digestion and help speed up the movement of food through the gut. Although most of this research has been from animal studies, it has led to the suggestion that eating black pepper with a meal may help increase the body’s ability to break down and digest food
  • And don’t forget we covered turmeric in a previous blog https://www.qcs.co.uk/turmeric-spice-life/

We need to be wary of claims of ‘super-spices’ as no one single food or ingredient is going to improve health or lower risk of disease, even with some credible evidence of beneficial properties. As spices are eaten in small amounts, many health effects are difficult to achieve from dietary intake alone.  But spices can be a useful way of enhancing flavour and decreasing the use of salt.

*All information is correct at the time of publishing

Ayela Spiro

Nutrition Science Manager, British Nutrition Foundation

Ayela is a nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, where her role involves providing expert advice on nutrition and health issues to a number of key audiences including consumers, health professionals, charities, the media and the food industry. At the heart of her work is the communication of nutrition science that promotes understanding of nutrition and health and contributes to the improved wellbeing of all.

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