When I wrote " The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth ", I made sure to give ample space to the category of spices. I think they're some of the most underused health foods on the planet, and virtually every day new research shows up confirming my hunch.
Just recently, researchers at the University of Georgia published a study in the Journal of Medicinal Food showing that common spices not only contain antioxidants, but also protect against the formation of a really nasty compound in the body aptly nicknamed AGEs (for A dvanced G lycolytic E nd-products). Advanced glycolated end-products are what results when sugar gloms onto protein molecules (a process called glycation)- this is a frequent effect of too much sugar in the diet (and in the blood stream). AGEs not only literally age your body, but they also activate the immune system, leading to inflammation and tissue damage. And if this damage happens in the blood vessel walls, it can contribute to heart disease.
The researchers tested extracts from two dozen common herbs and spices and found high levels of inflammation-inhibiting antioxidants called polyphenols. Top scorers in the antioxidant sweepstakes were clove (number one) and cinnamon (number two). An early study by Richard Anderson of the USDA showed that as little as a half teaspoon of cinnamon a day significantly reduced blood sugar in people with diabetes, but other studies have not lived up to the promise. This study, however, shows that there are benefits to cinnamon (and to the other spices) that go beyond "just" reducing blood sugar.
Among the herbs tested, oregano, marjoram and sage had the highest level of antioxidant polyphenols, followed by thyme, Italian seasoning, tarragon, mint and rosemary. Spices tended to have even higher levels of polyphenols than the dried herbs. Researcher Diane Hartle, PhD, commenting on the study, suggested that different polyphenols have different mechanisms of action within the body. "If you set up a good herb and spice cabinet and season your food liberally, you could double or even triple the medicinal value of your meal without increasing the calorie content", she told Medicine.Net.