Go Ahead, Spice Up Your Diet — It’s Good for Your Heart
By Heather Grey on June 8, 2021 — Fact checked by Dana K. Cassell
Two new studies have found that herbs and spices add more than just flavor to food. They also provide potential benefits for your health, such as lowering cholesterol levels and blood pressure. Getty Images
Two new studies have found that consuming herbs and spices can help promote better cardiovascular health.
One study found that adding herbs and spices to meals may help reduce blood pressure in people at risk of heart disease.
The other study linked spice supplements to lower cholesterol levels in people with type 2 diabetes.
Herbs and spices add more than just flavor to food. They also provide potential benefits for your health.
“Studies have shown positive health benefits when including herbs and spices in the diet, including anti-inflammatory [properties],” Kayla Kirschner, RDN, a nutritionist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told Healthline.
“Chronic inflammation is associated with heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and more,” she continued.
At this week’s NUTRITION 2021 Live Online meeting of the American Society for Nutrition (ASN), scientists from Penn State University and Clemson University are scheduled to present findings from two studies that found benefits of herb and spice consumption for cardiovascular health.
One study found that adding herbs and spices to meals may help reduce blood pressure in people at risk of heart disease. The other study linked spice supplements to lower cholesterol levels in people with type 2 diabetes.
“This research will help us to evaluate dosage, usage, and short-term effects,” said Kirschner, who wasn’t involved in the new research. “Hopefully, future studies will provide evidence on long-term effects.”
Benefits for blood pressure
Kristina Petersen, PhD, APD, is one of the scheduled presenters at this week’s ASN meeting. She’s an assistant research professor in the Cardiometabolic Nutrition Research Lab at Penn State College of Health and Human Development in University Park, Pennsylvania.
Petersen is presenting findings from a new study at Penn State and Texas Tech University, which examined the cardiometabolic effects of adding herbs and spices to the typical American diet.
“Our findings suggest that adding dried herbs and spices found in the spice aisle of the local supermarket to commonly made recipes has a beneficial effect on blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease,” Petersen said.
The study included 71 U.S. adults with obesity and other risk factors of heart disease. Over the course of the study, participants ate a typical American diet, with 50 percent of calories coming from carbohydrates, 17 percent from protein, and 33 percent from fat, including 11 percent from saturated fat.
Every 4 weeks, the participants rotated through a different version of the diet:
a low spice version, with 0.5 grams per day of mixed herbs and spices
a medium spice version, with 3.3 grams per day of mixed herbs and spices
a high spice version, with 6.6 grams per day of mixed herbs and spices
The researchers found that participants had lower 24-hour blood pressure levels when they ate a high spice diet. However, they found no differences in blood cholesterol or blood sugar levels.
“This is likely because we added the herbs and spices to a diet similar to what the average person in the United States consumes, which is not as nutritious as diets that are recommended for health and heart disease prevention,” Petersen said.
“It remains important to eat a healthy diet, including lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes,” she added.
Lowering cholesterol levels
Another presentation at this week’s ASN meeting will explore the findings of a recent research review that found a link between spice supplements and lower cholesterol levels in people with type 2 diabetes.
“Our systematic review of the available journal articles on ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, curcumin, and curcuminoids suggested an association with an improved lipid profile,” said Sepideh Alasvand, a PhD student in the department of food, nutrition, and packaging sciences at Clemson University in South Carolina. She conducted the review with her supervisor, Vivian Haley-Zitlin, PhD, RDN.
The review included 28 randomized controlled trials, in which people with type 2 diabetes received ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, curcumin, or curcuminoid supplements. Curcumin and curcuminoid are derived from turmeric.
“Although the available studies are limited and more studies are needed, the preliminary findings suggest that these spices may offer a potential benefit for people with type 2 diabetes and unhealthy high cholesterol levels,” Alasvand said.
The trials ran for a duration of 1 to 3 months and yielded different findings for different spices and supplement dosages. Approximately 30 percent of the trials found no significant effects from supplementation.
“These results signify the importance of dosages used in research studies when evaluating results and suggest a need for dose-response studies,” Alasvand said.
Dose-response studies explore if and how different dosages of a supplement, medication, or other treatment influences the effects.
Season your meals with herbs and spices
Although more research is needed to understand the specific health effects of herbs and spices, evidence shows that adding these nutrient-rich seasonings to your meals has potential benefits.
“Herbs and spices are great additions to meals to increase not only nutrition, but the taste of foods as well,” Kirschner said.
“[But] oftentimes prepackaged herb and spice mixes contain added salt, which can unintentionally increase sodium consumption — something we want to monitor to prevent high blood pressure and heart issues,” she said.
Some herb and spice blends also contain processed sugar or other additives.
To learn what herb and spice blends contain, Kirschner encourages people to check the label.
“Another idea is to make your own salt-free seasoning blends using the bulk herbs and spices at the store,” said Megan Byrd, a registered dietitian in Keizer, Oregon.
“By mixing together your own herbs and spices blends, you’ll be avoiding additives, sugars, and added salts without sacrificing any flavor,” she continued.
Talk with a doctor before taking supplements
Many herbs and spices are also available in supplement form as capsules, extracts, tinctures, or teas.
Supplements allow you to take a defined dose of a specific herb or spice in quantities that tend to be larger than what’s added to foods.
Although certain herb and spice supplements may have health benefits, some supplements can interact with certain medications or cause other side effects. Certain supplements may not be safe for everyone to take.
“Before taking supplements, always speak with your doctor or healthcare professional,” Kirschner said.
“Herbs and spices used for culinary purposes are usually smaller doses than what is found in supplements. For this reason, adding additional herbs and spices to your foods is generally OK,” she added.
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