Spices have been revered for their health benefits throughout history- but are they really good for your health?According to Ayurvedic medicine, an ancient belief system in Hinduism, spices can be warming or cooling and are used to affect the balance of the digestive system.
“They act as a stimulus to the digestive system, relieve digestive disorders and some spices are of antiseptic value,” explains Dr Krishnapura Srinivasan, a scientist at the Central Food Technological Research Institute in Mysore, India.
It is not surprising that spices have become associated with dieting. As far back as 2500 years ago, the Chinese teacher and philosopher Confucius recommended eating ginger at every meal to improve digestion. But there is still no scientific consensus on how spices affect our health.
“There’s a perception that spices are good for dieting as this is often covered in the media; women will often latch on to anything that sounds as though it’s an easy way to lose weight,” explains Azmina Govindji, an award-winning dietician from the British Dietetic Association.
Scientists at the Human Performance Lab at Appalachian State University, North Carolina, US, recently studied whether culinary doses of red pepper and turmeric would reduce chronic inflammation in overweight females aged 40-72.
They hypothesised that inflammation in overweight people could be caused by oxidative stress. This is a process when chemically reactive molecules known as free radicals trigger physiological events or damage tissues.
But the results of the month-long clinical trial were negative. No evidence was found to suggest that red pepper or turmeric alters inflammation by influencing oxidative stress.
This could point to the need for higher doses and longer testing periods, scientists say. Or that the spices simply have no effect.
Cayenne pepper is another spice touted as a weight loss solution. You might have added it to poached eggs or corn on the cob, but how about eating it with maple syrup?
Deep fried calamari with garlic and lemon mayonnaise Crispy calamari deep fried with cayenne pepper, salt and paprika
The cayenne pepper and maple syrup diet made headlines in 2007, when US singer Beyonce Knowles reported losing 20lb (9kg) after following it for two weeks.
So why is the spice hotly tipped as a solution to weight loss?
“There have been suggestions that red cayenne pepper may be a useful aid to weight management, especially in people who don’t normally eat chilli peppers,” says Ms Govindji. “But this remains to be confirmed.”
The effect of red pepper on thermogenesis, a process which affects metabolism and appetite, was studied by scientists at Purdue University, Indiana in the US.
The study found that as body temperature increased, metabolic rate increased, and the desire to eat fatty foods was decreased in participants who ate red pepper as part of a meal compared to those who didn’t.
Another study by researchers at Kyoto University, Japan found that males in the country who consumed a normal diet along with a red pepper extract known as “CH19-Sweet” experienced slightly decreased body fat and weight loss after two weeks.
But can we draw any real conclusions from studies such as these? Whether you’re taking a leaf out of the Hairy Dieters book and roasting some cumin-crusted vegetables, or cooking up a spiced apple and raisin crumble, ultimately it is not the spices alone that help you lose weight but how you cook with them.