Turning up the heat in your kitchen could add years to your life. Savoring meals peppered with sizzling-hot spices just twice a week cut the risk of an early death by 14 percent, according to a recent report. In a well-designed Chinese study, researchers from Peking University and Harvard Medical School tracked the diets and health of 487,375 people for seven years. They discovered that eating plenty of red-hot chili peppers containing a compound called capsaicin is a great health and longevity booster.
Fortunately, for folks who aren’t crazy about red-hot peppers, plenty of other seasonings deliver significant health advantages too. By using herbs and spices instead of blood-pressure-boosting salt and waistline-expanding excess fat, you’ll multiply the effects. And you’ll even get a small nutrition bump: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, natural seasonings can contribute important minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron to your diet. And North Americans are using more herbs and spices than ever, living life with a younger RealAge.
Spicy superstars: Hot peppers top the list; they’re celebrities in cuisines from Mexico to India, Asia and beyond. The Scoville scale is used to measure their capsaicin-fueled heat. The Bhut Jolokia chili (also called the Ghost Pepper) is the world’s hottest with a Scoville rating of 1,001,304 units; easier-to-eat chilies like the pasiolla, ancho and poblano rate only 1,000 to 2,000; a jalapeno hits 2,500 to 5,000; and a habanero 100,000 to 350,000. Experiment with different kinds (just a touch of some, at first!) to see what suits your palate.
Other superstar spices include garlic (we love it in stir-fries, brown rice and fresh vegetable salads) and turmeric (it’s from the curcumin plant and makes curries and mustards yellow). Enjoy turmeric in curry powder or simply by slathering sandwiches with yellow mustard, Dr. Mike’s favorite way to get more of this beneficial spice.
Spice science: The capsaicin in chili peppers cools inflammation, discourages cancer, protects cells and even inhibits the growth of bacteria. As for garlic, it reduces your risk for colorectal cancer and may inhibit cancers of the stomach, colon, esophagus, pancreas and breast. No wonder the World Health Organization suggests having a clove a day! And curcumin also may cool inflammation and discourage cancer, and it shows some promise against Alzheimer’s disease.
Tasty green herbs: Add basil, mint, oregano and/or rosemary to sauces, soups, stews and marinades. But don’t stop there. How about mint or fresh basil in your next fruit salad? Add oregano and rosemary to a little olive oil (with garlic, too!) and drizzle on veggies or over warm white or red beans. Or brew fresh mint tea by steeping leaves in just-boiled water.
Spice science: Flavonoids in basil, like orientin and vicenin, help protect cells from damage, while this herb’s volatile oils (they give basil its irresistible scent and flavor) discourage the growth of bacteria. Marinades containing basil, oregano and/or rosemary reduce levels of cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic amines in grilled meats. Tasty compounds in peppermint, like menthol and menthone, also guard cells and have antiviral and antibacterial talents.
Cozy and comforting: Don’t wait for Thanksgiving to sprinkle classic autumn spices like cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg on veggies, whole grains and lean meats. Try cinnamon in your next cup of coffee, over oatmeal, even in salad dressing. Add a dash of ground nutmeg (a little goes a long way) to whole-grain muffin recipes, along with cinnamon. Store fresh ginger root in the freezer; grate a little into salad dressings, add to stir-fries, sprinkle over sauteed kale, baked squash or even salmon or chicken before grilling. For a soothing hot drink, steep a little freshly grated ginger in just-boiled water, add a spritz of fresh lemon and sip.
Flavor science: Ginger is packed with inflammation-cooling compounds called gingerols that may discourage the development of colorectal cancer. Cinnamon can help lower blood sugar, several studies show. Nutmeg has anti-inflammatory effects.
So be bold. Remember, whatever spice you try, there seems to be a benefit.
Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. To live your healthiest, tune into “The Dr. Oz Show” or visit www.sharecare.com.