Spices are widely used throughout the Mediterranean in cooking, reflecting a strong multi-cultural, and particularly an historical Arab influence. While the primary reason is to add taste and flavour many imbue colour to the Mediterranean Diet (or Rainbow Diet as we like to call it), and all have significant health benefits. Spices have been used to treat and cure a wide variety of ailments for centuries. Here are six.
Saffron, or Kesar, is produced from the stigmas of the saffron crocus, each of which have to be hand-picked and dried, making the process labour intensive – saffron per gram is more expensive than gold. It gives Mediterranean cooking its yellow colour.
Saffron has strong liver-protective and elsewhere on this site we have shown it has anti-depression and anti-anxiety properties. One bioactive ingredient, crocin, is a carotenoid shown in research to inhibit cancer spread and cause cancer cell death, for example in leukaemia, colon and ovarian cancer.
Saffron is often used locally in milk to treat colds and fevers, and to provide vitality. In Japan researchers have developed supplements to treat Parkinson’s as saffron has memory and brain stimulating properties.
Turmeric, containing its orange pigment curcumin, is the underground stem of a tropical perennial that grows in many hot countries. The stem is a light brown colour on the outside but, when ground, produces a bright yellow/orange powder. It is a common component on the Southern Mediterranean shores.
It is the single most researched compound in the world – with proven and strong anti-inflammatory benefits. It is a powerful antioxidant and is known to boost glutathione levels and prevent liver damage. It has proven antimicrobial powers often being used in local recipes around the world along with meat that is slightly ‘off’. These properties have resulted in its use in treating colorectal cancer. It is known to improve the effectiveness of certain cancer drugs as it has the ability to attack and ‘sensitise’ cancer cells, while at the same time protecting healthy cells. It is also used to treat multiple myeloma at high doses.
Cumin is the seed of a small plant related to parsley but found in hot climates, especially North Africa, India and the Americas. The seeds are boat-shaped and resemble caraway seeds, but are lighter in colour and have tiny bristles. They should be roasted before being ground, but can then be used to spice up a whole range of dishes including curries, stews and grills. Cumin is very commonly used in Mexican, Spanish, Indian or Middle Eastern cooking. A word of warning, however: go easy on the cumin – half a teaspoon is ample for a family of four! Cumin has long been believed to help people suffering from disorders of the digestive tract including heartburn, nausea and diarrhoea, probably due to it stimulating the production of pancreatic enzymes. Cumin is also believed to have important anti-cancer properties, firstly because of its ability to neutralise cancer-causing free radicals, and, secondly, by enhancing the liver ́s detoxification enzymes.
Fresh ginger is often recommended to relieve symptoms of nausea – some people chew a slice, or grate it to make a hot drink. It has major benefits as an anti-inflammatory compound. Preliminary studies at the American Association of Cancer Research have shown that gingerol – an active ingredient in ginger – may halt the growth of colon cancer, and it is also effective in killing yeasts and microbes. Research has seen it used with breast and prostate cancer, and in 2015 research showed that ginger helped normalise blood sugar levels.
Sage has been used to improve flavour and as an anti-microbial in cooking for hundreds of years. In the Middle Ages it was an important health treatment. Several studies show that it improves memory function and prevents the breakdown of acetylcholine in the body, something that happens in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Popular Mediterranean herb known to have yeast and microbe-killing properties. It has been used to treat infections for thousands of years. One ingredient caryophillin was shown by researchers from Zurich and Bonn Universities to be highly anti-inflammatory and prevent bone degeneration (osteoporosis). It has been shown effective in cases of Lupus and Crohn’s and helps in cases of rheumatoid arthritis.
Saffron, sage, oregano, ginger, cumin and turmeric are found in Mediterranean kitchens but could just as well be in the Medicine cabinet, given their significant health properties.
Variety in your foods really is the spice of life.