by Michelle Costantini, BA, ALC, AFNC
In the 1300s, when tariffs were at their highest, a pound of nutmeg in Europe cost seven fattened oxen and was considered a more valuable commodity than gold. By the 1400s, when navigational equipment had improved to the point that long-haul sailing became possible, the kings and queens of Europe set out to change the balance of world trade by funding spice-hunting missions of their own. The search for a cheaper way to obtain spices from the East led to the great Age of Exploration and the accidental discovery of the New World when Christopher Columbus, while searching for a quicker route to India, bumped into the Americas.
THE HISTORICAL USE OF SPICES:
The very first and only true medicines ever used were those derived from the vegetable kingdom. Before spices became money, they were medicines: turmeric, cloves, cinnamon, coriander, ginger and black peppercorns. Their healing properties and use date back to the world’s first civilizations.
Sanskrit writings of 3,000 years ago describe the therapeutic uses of spices and ancient medical texts from China are filled with remedies using spices for hundreds of ailments.
Throughout the Middle Ages they were used as both medicines and condiments. Most spices were hot and dry and so they were appropriate in sauces to counteract the moist meat and fish. Inventories and account books of pharmacies show that spices like pepper, cinnamon and ginger were sold in many varieties and in different medical prescriptions. Today spices are not only used in medicine, but religious rituals, cosmetics and perfume production.
WHAT IS A SPICE?
A spice is the edible, aromatic, colorful and dried part of a plant such as the seed, the fruit, the root, or the bark. They are distinguished from herbs, which are the leaves, flowers, or stems from plants. For example, fresh cilantro is an herb whereas coriander, its seed, is a spice.
Sometimes, spices may be ground into a powder for convenience. Many spices have antimicrobial properties. This may explain why they are more commonly used in warmer climates, which have more infectious diseases, and why the use of spices is prominent in meat, which is particularly susceptible to spoiling.
Spices get their healing powers from their volatile oils. These compounds supply the spices with their pungent aromas, they also contain many unique phytonutrients that aren’t found in fruits and vegetables.
Curcumin: contains potent anti-cancer properties found only in turmeric. Studies show it can fight dozens of other diseases
Piperine, the compound that makes you sneeze when you eat black pepper, protects brain cells and has a dozen other healing actions
Eugenol gives clove its distinctive aroma and is a natural pain killer
Rosemarinic acid makes rosemary one of the most powerful antioxidants on earth
Gingerol, a compound in ginger, tames nausea
The US has 3 times the rate of colon cancer as India, which is well known for its spicy cuisine.
India has one of the world’s lowest rates of Alzheimer’s disease.
Greece (uses a lot of garlic, onion, rosemary, and marjoram) has low rate of heart disease.
Spain (consumes the most saffron) has low levels of the bad LDL cholesterol that clogs arteries and increases the risk of heart disease.
Exploration continues in the 21st Century as scientific research proves only what has been known for centuries: spices not only enhance flavor but most of all improve health. If you consider your health “a higher commodity than gold,” then you want spices in your diet.
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