For decades, nutritionists and researchers have been talking about the health benefits of consuming spices and spice supplements ― we’re not talking about spicy foods like jalapeños, but spices like ginger, cinnamon and turmeric. What has been a staple in many Eastern diets is now becoming a health trend around the world ― even your neighbourhood cafes are expanding their menus to include turmeric-boosted golden milk lattes and gingery immunity booster shots.
But what if you feel bloated after ingesting spicy foods and drinks, or lie sleepless with heartburns and ulcers at night? Learning which spices are most beneficial to consume, and at what times of the day, may help alleviate discomfort and offer more long-term advantages.
“Something that works for most people may not work for you,” said registered dietician nutritionist YaQutullah Ibraheem Muhammad. “Dieticians look at the client’s current circumstances and health challenges – what they want to normalise, their health goals, etc. ― and then find the best solutions for them.” She advises people not to take blind recommendations before analysing their own conditions.
Before starting any new diet, consult with an experienced professional, especially if you are taking prescription medications. Certain drugs counteract when taken too close together with spices, and individualised plans will indicate your spice tolerance and needs. But here are a few general guidelines to consider.
The Best Time Of Day To Absorb Nutrients From Spices
“Earlier in the day is better, as your body has more time to absorb the nutrients from spices,” said registered dietician Supriya Lal. As the day goes on, some people find it harder to tolerate spices and may get heartburn. And if you have hernia or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), you will be more prone to having issues with spices any time of the day.
Sometimes the most beneficial way to eat a spice can be specific to each type of spice. Herbal teas that contain fenugreek seeds, for example, can help lactating mothers make milk when consumed before bedtime. Zesty ginger is often consumed after meals for digestive support and to ward off nausea. Earthy and sweet cinnamon may help reduce blood sugar levels and add flavour to a morning cup of tea or bowl of oatmeal. A pinch of kalonji (Nigella seeds) taken with water, a smoothie or oatmeal can help lower cholesterol, regulate blood sugar and prevent inflammation.
Bellofatto and other Ayurvedic experts base their strategy on findings from the traditional Hindu system of medicine, which says every individual has a different constitution that can be broadly categorised into three types of energies or doshas, namely vata, kapha and pitta (you can take a basic dosha quiz to find out your predominant energy), and each group should stick to their own recommended spice blends. Typically, it’s believed that spices should be taken first thing in the morning for reproductive issues, with meals for digestion and after meals for mindfulness.
Muhammad advised another framework. “Instead of the time of the day, you may want to look at what you are cooking,” she said. Muhammad pointed out that civilisations have been cooking certain combinations of produce and proteins with spices, not just to add more flavour, but because they creatively add nutrients that can have health benefits. For example, cinnamon in lamb or chicken reduces the need for excess salt to help manage hypertension; or if you need to deal with inflammation, cayenne, turmeric and ginger have anti-inflammatory properties.
What’s Better, Whole Spices Or Dried Powders?
“Whole food forms of spices always have the best digestive properties, as they are more potent, so your first choice should be to consume fresh, whole spices, either raw, or cooked with meals,” Lal said. You are also likely to use spices more often (such as fresh ginger and turmeric root) when purchased raw, since they are perishable. Also, powdered spices tend to lose their potency after a few months, so check the expiration date and throw away any spices that have been on the shelf for longer than six months.
Mixing spices with other ingredients can make them even more powerful. For example, by consuming black pepper with turmeric, the absorption of curcumin, an antioxidant, increases by 2,000%. Likewise, cardamom and tulsi (holy basil) are an Ayurvedic remedy used to reduce the acidity in caffeinated drinks.
Your schedule may not allow you the time to home cook nutritious, spice-enhanced meals every day, in which case, it is fine to purchase organic pre-made spice mixes. Bellofatto recommends eating 1/2 teaspoon of the classic Ayurvedic blend (cumin, coriander, fennel, ginger and cardamom) before or after meals to maintain overall health, vitality and balance in the digestive tract.
Muhammad warns against “nutrient-dense, superfood, spice supplements” powders and pills as they are not FDA-approved, and often contain fillers as well as traces of gluten. Gelatin cased herbal capsules may not be appropriate for Halal diets.
“Health bars and immune boosters are great, but sometimes they have too many ingredients and your body cannot process everything at once,” Bellofatto said. Herbal teas, elixir shots and spicy green smoothies are more accessible today ― if you’re on the go and need an extra dose, sprinkle your own spice mix on your drink or meal.
For an average healthy individual, spices can be easily incorporated in the daily diet. But if you have certain health goals in mind, speak to a registered nutritionist and find out the right solution for you.