The Surprising Health Benefits of the Spices in Your Cupboard
When Kanchan Koya started adding cardamom and clove to her seven-month-old son’s baby food, many moms she knew were shocked. But Koya, who holds a Ph.D. in biomedicine from Harvard, knew that spices can be beneficial to the body—not to mention exciting flavor-enhancers—and decided to set the record straight. In 2014, she started Spice Spice Baby, a blog that debunks misconceptions around spices and demonstrates how to incorporate them into easy, everyday meals.
On her website, Koya skillfully combines her knowledge of traditional spices with evidence-based research about their healthful properties. She publishes in-depth profiles of popular spices alongside approachable recipes, such as anti-inflammatory chicken broth and raw cacao energy balls, and explainers on how to introduce spices to kids. Each post shows her readers, who are primarily young parents, that it is absolutely possible to make dishes that please both the palate and the body. “There’s this myth that you’re either eating really delicious food while being slightly irresponsible about your health, or you’re eating super healthy, but the food is kind of dull,” she says. “You don’t have to sacrifice taste or joy to eat healthy.”
We recently spoke with Koya about common misunderstandings people have about spices, the role they play in Ayurvedic medicine, and some of her favorite peppery recipes.
How did you first become interested in spices?
I grew up in India, and was surrounded by spices—in my food, but also as medicine. India has a traditional, natural system of medicine called Ayurveda, which originated there more than three thousand years ago. Spices are an integral part of Ayurveda’s stance on natural remedies, and on food and herbs as medicine. Every family in India has that kind of wisdom practically intertwined in their DNA.
Even though I grew up around spices used for flavor and for health, I was always skeptical of the ancient wisdom associated with them. I was someone who needed evidence-based claims for pretty much anything related to the body. Years later, I was at Harvard Medical School’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and my lab actually started to study turmeric as an anti-cancer agent. That was a big “aha” moment for me. It gave me pause, it made me smile, and it made me re-respect a lot of the traditional knowledge that I received when I was growing up. I was surprised that what I had rolled my eyes at as a kid was now manifesting as modern scientific evidence.
What other misconceptions do people have around spices?
One misconception that’s really prevalent is that, in order to enjoy spices, you have to eat exotic foods, such as Indian, Thai, or Mexican cuisine—that you can’t get them by consuming traditional Western food. I have debunked that myth by showing that you can add spices to anything. Spices can be added to your coffee. I put cardamom and cinnamon in mine, which stabilizes blood sugar and makes the coffee taste sweet without the need for added sugar. You can add those same spices to oatmeal, pancakes, banana bread, and popcorn. There’s absolutely no reason that you have to make complicated, unfamiliar recipes in order to enjoy the magic of spices.
Another myth is that, because we use spices in such small amounts, there’s no way they can stack up to create significant health benefits. We now have data that suggests that, even when consumed in small quantities, adding spices to our food can make a huge difference in our overall health. A tablespoon of a spice blend in a pretty junky meal, for example, can actually lower post-meal blood sugar and inflammation markers in real time.
Can you talk about some of your favorite recipes, and their health benefits?
In the winter months, I always turn to soups. The Ayurvedic perspective and traditional Chinese medicine tell us that colder weather can cause our digestive systems to become sluggish. Soups act as sort of a predigested explosion of nutrients, because they’ve been cooked down, and are often blended, making them more digestible. I made an entirely plant-based harira soup—a classic, traditionally meat-based Moroccan comfort food—the other day, with lentils, chickpeas, and other ingredients I had in my fridge. I combined them with tomatoes, tomato paste, paprika, turmeric, and cinnamon for a hearty dinner. Really any soup or stew, with lots of ginger, is a satisfying go-to.
I also love golden milk. When I used to get sick as a kid, my grandmother would make it for me—though it wasn’t called “golden milk” back then. It was called haldi doodh, which just means “turmeric milk.” I love combining a plant-based milk—I prefer cashew milk—with turmeric, saffron, cardamom, cinnamon, a pinch of black pepper, and dash of date syrup to help balance the immune system.
What spices would you recommend to those who are new to incorporating them into their meals?
Turmeric is one that gets a lot of attention, and for good reason, because it has umpteen health benefits. It has some really powerful plant-based compounds, called polyphenols, in it, as well as phytochemicals that have a plethora of effects in our bodies. The most studied of these compounds is curcumin, which has some amazing powers, including calming inflammation and helping to restore the integrity and health of the gut lining, which is so critical for every aspect of health. It's also antibacterial and has immune system–strengthening effects. While curcumin has all of these great benefits, it is poorly bioavailable, meaning it doesn’t easily enter the circulation. So it’s important to always pair it with a pinch of black pepper, which enhances its bioavailability.
Next is cinnamon. Real human data shows that half a teaspoon of cinnamon a day can help to balance blood sugar. I always tell people to go out of their way to get true cinnamon, or Ceylon cinnamon, which has very low levels of a compound called coumarin. Regular cinnamon actually has high enough levels of coumarin, which, if you’re having it often, could lead to liver toxicity issues.
I also recommend sumac, a purple berry that grows on bushes in East Asia, Africa, and North America. It’s usually dried, cured with a little bit of sea salt, and powdered. Anytime we see purple in nature, we know that we are looking at these beautiful natural compounds called anthocyanins, which are powerful antioxidants. The reason I love sumac so much is because it's tangy, and it makes everything from salads to eggs taste even more delicious.