If you’re new to cooking with herbs and spices, Moreno recommends trying a pinch at a time to figure out which ingredients and flavor combinations you like. “Even small amounts can offer health benefits,” she says.
Cardamom: This sweet, pungent spice is in many pumpkin spices mixes. It’s known to soothe an upset stomach, and lab studies show it may also help fight inflammation, lower blood pressure, and play a role in preventing the growth of cancer cells. One more perk? “Of all spices, cardamom is especially high in minerals like magnesium and zinc,” says Moreno.
Here are some standouts to think about adding to your next meal:
Chili peppers: Fresh, dried, or powdered, chilies will give your food a kick. They also may boost your metabolism and help keep blood vessels healthy. One possible reason is capsaicin — the compound that makes them spicy.
Cinnamon: “Cinnamon is great because it’s sweet but very low in calories and sugar-free,” says Moreno. “Plus, it’s easy to find and not expensive, and you can add it to almost anything, including coffee and tea.”
Lab studies show that cinnamon also may help with inflammation, fend off free radicals that can damage your cells, fight off bacteria, and even protect against conditions that affect your brain or nervous system, like Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease.
And some research suggests it may help lower blood sugar in people who have diabetes or are likely to get the disease, but other studies don’t back that up. “It can be a part of a healthful diet, but don’t mistake it for a diabetes cure,” says Moreno.
Cumin: Used worldwide and known as a key ingredient in many Indian dishes, cumin is naturally rich in iron. It may play a role in weight loss, too. One study of 88 overweight women found that those who ate a little less than a teaspoon of cumin a day while on a low-calorie diet lost more body fat and weight as those on the same diet who didn’t add cumin.
Garlic: This plant has a powerful compound called allicin. Lab studies have shown that it may lower your chances of getting heart disease, and it may even help stop the growth of cancer cells. And other research shows that eating garlic regularly may help with high cholesterol and high blood pressure. But to get the benefits, you have to chop or crush the clove: Allicin is formed only after the cells in the garlic have been cut or crushed.
Ginger: Yes, ginger really can help with an upset stomach. “It has a calming effect on the lining of your digestive system, and can ease nausea, too,” says Moreno.
Lab studies also show that ginger has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, and may play a role in preventing diseases like cancer.
Turmeric: This yellow spice gets a lot of hype, and for good reason. It’s a good source of curcumin, an antioxidant that eases inflammation. Research suggests that curcumin may help ease pain and lower the chances of heart attacks, too. And other research shows that eating even small amounts of turmeric regularly may help prevent or slow down Alzheimer’s disease, possibly by helping prevent the brain plaques that lead to dementia.