When you walk down the aisles of your local grocery store, there is usually an entire section dedicated to spices. From cinnamon to pepper, cumin to star anise, ground or whole, organic or locally sourced, the choices are bedazzling and the selection endless. Spices were once so valuable that entire nations sent out expeditions just to discover new routes to their source, yet they are so common today that we can pick one off the shelf. In addition to how spices enhance our food, they actually have incredible medicinal properties.
According to an extensive 2019 study published in The Journal of AOAC International, “there is now ample evidence that spices and herbs possess antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antitumorigenic, anticarcinogenic, and glucose- and cholesterol-lowering activities, as well as properties that affect cognition and mood.”
But many people are not used to eating spices as a nutritional supplement and may have heard stories about how they cause bloating, heartburn, or other unwanted side effects. Other people have issues with spices in general and are asking themselves if it is really worth all the trouble. We turned to nutritional specialists for answers.
How and When to Take Spice Supplements
“I would say the most common [issue people have with spices] is tolerance,” said Supriya Lal, a registered dietician. A good example of this would be chili. Some people may be OK with dumping a lot of hot sauce onto their food, while others may be struggling with just a drop or two. This then also applies to the myriad of spices out there where the individual needs to figure out how much of a spice he or she can tolerate.
For minimized side-effects and maximum absorption, Lal recommends that we add the most spices to our food late morning to early afternoon.
During the morning, our bodies are still waking up and might struggle to handle an intense breakfast; at night, dinner is usually right before bedtime, so digestion is going to be on the slow side of things.
Around noon, however, the body is likely to be at its peak and will be able to process things most effectively. This includes spices.
If you are taking spices in a supplement form, Katie Chapmon, an award-winning, registered dietitian, suggests taking “your supplements on an empty stomach, away from other food and medication by about two hours.”
She says to check if the spices somehow interfere with other medication you are taking by consulting with your physician.
Chapmon also said that there are really no side effects to spices, but that the body might take some time to adjust to them. This is why, especially when taking spices as a prescribed supplement, it is helpful to not start off with the maximum dosage all at once. If your prescription tells you to take three capsules a day, you can start off with one, then gradually increase it over time according to your own pace.
Incorporating Spices Into Your Diet
“Spices [in general are] a thing that can really increase dietary diversity,” which is why Lal recommends everyone to be a little daring and give spices a try. Dietary diversity is a great way to “increase the healthy amount of bacteria in our gut,” a keystone to healthy living and longevity.
A great way to incorporate spices into your diet is to simply cook them into your food. Adding nutmeg to your latte, peppermint to your tea, ginger to your fish, or sage to your chicken is a great way to incorporate more flavor into your life—not to mention the promised health effects. It is important to remember to not overcook spices, as “[heat] can affect [the] nutritional value of spices. [For] most of the time, it’s best to … eat them raw,” says Chapmon.
She also says that taking spices in the supplement form, meaning like a capsule or pill, can guarantee the fixed amount of the supplement you need. For example, if you need a daily dose of 30 milligrams of curcumin, one of the active biocompounds in turmeric associated with the anti-inflammatory and cancer preventing properties as previously mentioned, it is easiest to do so with a supplement.
Lal, however, takes a different approach. “I am a huge proponent of eating things in their whole form rather than a supplement,” remarked Lal, as she thinks taking spices in the form of a pill or concentrate is still secondary to the real thing. This is why she recommends all her patients to stick with the real thing.
Regardless of how you choose to take your spices, one way to minimize any negative repercussions from spices is to not only eat them at the right time, but also keep a little food diary on your phone or a notepad while you try them out. Take note of what you can’t tolerate if you’re feeling a little anxious. There’s really no way other than a little bit of good old-fashioned trial and error. Yogurt, on a side note, is a handy thing to have on hand as it can help neutralize heartburn if it comes up.
In general, there are no real disadvantages or serious side effects to eating spices. Intolerance is really the only issue that can arise, which might spell trouble for people who have IBS or gastrointestinal disturbances. In this case, you should always consult with your physician if you have any questions.
Some people have expressed concerns about spices contaminated with heavy metals, and Lal recommends checking the source of where you’re getting the spices. “Each country has their own rules and regulations when it comes to harvesting and manufacturing [spices]… check the sources yourself. Are you getting them from an organic farm? Are you getting them from the supermarket?”
Another great way to ensure that your spices or supplements are safe is to check the labeling if they are third party certified. Labels like USDA organic or Fair Trade Certified are always a good sign. “Make sure that you have some labeling or some seals that are either third party tested or [you’re] looking for a seal that reaches qualifications,” Champon added.
The Spices Nutritionists Like the Most
Chapmon said that “one of my favorite spices is turmeric. I love the anti-inflammatory properties that it gives and …[turmeric] also [has] such a bright, lovely color as well. And then my other one is oregano. That’s really wonderful for gut health and gut dysbiosis.”
Lal, on the other hand, mentioned a spice that we often overlook and underrate. She said that across all cultures and civilizations, salt has played one of the most vital roles in our diets. We humans cannot live without salt, and although we tend to consume a little too much of it, the importance thereof should never be underestimated.