Spices at the service of health

Increasingly studied for their health benefits, spices are full of bioactive molecules that reduce the development of obesity, cardiovascular disease and several types of cancer. Its active biochemical compounds exert several positive health effects.

Humans are the only animal that seasons their food before eating it, a practice that is probably as old as mankind itself. For example, archaeological studies have revealed the presence of poppy seeds, dill and coriander on sites occupied by prehistoric men more than 20,000 years ago, as well as residues of certain spices on pottery used for cooking food by early civilizations. Since these spices have a very low caloric value, but on the other hand have a pronounced flavor, their presence testifies to an early interest of these first “chefs” for spicy dishes, independent of their survival linked to caloric intake.

Bactericidal, fungicidal and antimicrobial properties

Several observations suggest that the attraction towards spices also stems from their significant effects on health. Like all plants, spices and aromatics produce large quantities of bactericidal, fungicidal and insecticidal compounds which are very useful for human nutrition. Thanks to this antimicrobial action of spices and aromatics, the preservation time of food can be considerably increased, a property which has been particularly important for the inhabitants of the hottest regions of the globe. It is believed that people who commonly used these spices were healthier due to their consumption of healthier foods, which helped to gradually introduce this custom to the general population and to ensure that eating dishes very spicy has become a common cultural feature in many hot regions of the world.

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But the benefits of spices are not limited to these antimicrobial properties. Several studies carried out in recent years suggest that the bioactive molecules of spices could reduce the development of obesity, cardiovascular disease and several types of cancer. The culinary use of spices is therefore not only essential to enhance the flavor of our daily dishes; these plants are concentrates of biochemically active compounds that exert several positive effects on health.

Reduction of premature mortality

To further examine this positive impact of spices on health, Chinese scientists have studied the relationship between the consumption of spicy foods and the risk of premature death. The eating habits of 200,000 men and nearly 300,000 women were recorded, with particular attention to their consumption of dishes containing chili peppers. This spice is one of the strongest in the world, because the capsaicin it contains interacts with a pain receptor (TRPV1) present in the oral cavity and at the same time activates the nerves responsible for the sensation of heat or burning. . And in some cases, the effect is stunning!

By counting the deaths that occurred over the next eight years, they observed that people who ate meals spicy with these chili peppers every day were 15% less likely to die prematurely than those who ate them more rarely (once or less per week). This decrease in overall mortality risk is due to a decrease in the risk of dying from cancer, coronary heart disease and respiratory disease.

Anti-inflammatories and weight regulators

These observations are very interesting, because over the years chili peppers have become one of the most popular spices in the world. In addition to literally putting your “mouth on fire”, a feeling that appeals to many people, the capsaicin in these peppers has anti-inflammatory properties and prevents overweight by lowering levels of ghrelin (the appetite hormone ), two effects that could contribute to the lower mortality risk observed in the study.

There are therefore only advantages to using an abundance of spices and aromatics to season our daily dishes. Spices heighten our senses and create tastier food, while supplying the body with several plant molecules with beneficial health properties. A great way to spice up our lives!

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Saul H et al. «Phytoliths in pottery reveal the use of spice in European prehistoric cuisine». PLoS One 2013; 8: e70583.

Billing J and Sherman PW. “Antimicrobial functions of spices: why some like it hot.” Q.Rev. Biol. 1998; 73: 3-49.

Lv J et al. “Consumption of spicy foods and total and cause specific mortality: population based cohort study.” BMJ 2015; 351:h3942.


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