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Spice up your life!

Ask the Dietitan, Expert answers, General health, Gut microbiome health, Type 2 diabetes
Spice up your life!

Cooking spices: a delicious way to stay healthy.

This guest post is written by Moe Brandi who holds a MSc in Food Innovation and Health and specializes in bioactive components in foods that improve human health. Her work centers around natural ingredients and a strong belief that food can be healthy, delicious, and gratifying at the same time. 


Expand your culinary horizons beyond the familiarity of salt and pepper. Your discoveries will not only give you memorable meal-experiences but also create better tasting and healthier food. 

 

About spices

Spices - often referred to as seasoning - define cultures and cuisines from all over the world as they are authentic to its place of origin and its people. The definition of a “spice” is fluid. In general, spices are dry forms of ingredients that can be ground and used to enhance and elevate the taste of food.

Spices are a great way to bring your everyday meals to life with immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory properties on top of flavor and beautiful colors. In some cases, spices perceived as sweet, like cinnamon, and salty, like celery seed, can be used to substitute sugar and sodium. I often add cinnamon to my tomato sauce instead of sugar to enhance the flavor and “umami” of the tomatoes. Try it next time - this tomato sauce works well with your choice of pasta (get Pendulum Dietitian Kristin Neusel's recommendations on which pastas we recommend for diabetes here).
  

Spices and diabetes

Certain spices have been shown to help manage blood sugar levels with insulin-like actions, and they may also lower the rise in triglyceride levels in the blood after a high-fat meal. There is still more research needed to fully elucidate their actions, active compounds, and effects on blood sugar levels. That said, we truly believe in spices as a part of a healthy food habit. Well-seasoned dishes can even make you feel full and satisfied faster by stimulating your senses, from smell to taste to sight. 

This post will focus on turmeric, cinnamon, and raw cacao powder. We strongly recommend you also explore other spices like fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, and cumin seeds as other spices that may help you manage your blood sugar levels. From the latest Ask The Experts interview with Dr. Beverly Yates, we learned that sleep and stress can affect your blood sugar. Introducing spices in your evening rituals as infusions in warm milk or teas like lavender, chamomile, and tulsi is a great way to help fight stress and anxiety.

 


Spice up your life!

Turmeric (parts used: rhizomes)
Turmeric is a ‘warm’ and somewhat bitter spice. The popularity of turmeric in all its forms has increased during the years and was recently the top functional food search term on Google. Foods can be attributed to the concept of ‘functional foods’ if the food exerts proved beneficial effects for the consumer or targeted population group beyond that of accepted nutritional effects (adapted from ILSI-Europe, 2009). Turmeric is still on the top of most lists of functional food trends and can be used in both savory and sweet recipes. 

For example, it's a key ingredient in yellow curry powder and masala spice blends that adds an eye-catching color. It’s also often used together with coconut milk, in savory golden broths and stocks, and in golden turmeric milk. Golden milk is an Indian drink containing warm milk and turmeric in its simplest form. Though these days it is often mixed with honey and other spices like cinnamon, ginger, and black pepper to boost your immunity. It has gained a lot of popularity, and you can get it in most coffee and tea shops, or you can buy the spice blend in most grocery stores. 

Turmeric also helps to thicken sauces as it has a starchy quality that can replace cornstarch or flour.

Turmeric contains active compounds called curcuminoids, which have been studied as a natural approach to potentially treating diabetes (reference). Throughout history, it has been used as traditional Ayurvedic medicine, and it is considered a spice that cleanses the whole body, supports digestion, infections, and inflammations.

Turmeric is well paired with the following spices: Ginger (turmeric is actually a member of the ginger family), black pepper (the active compound in black pepper, piperine, helps to enhance the bioavailability of curcuminoids), yellow mustard, wasabi, onion, and clove. 


Ideas for food combinations with turmeric: 
  1. Combine and whisk olive oil, lemon juice, and ground turmeric for a healthy and colorful citrus dressing. 
  1. Sprinkle additional ground turmeric into your favorite curry recipe or simmering stocks. 
  1. Add to your favorite smoothie blends - goes well together with ginger, honey, and lemon. 
  1. Use it to tint your rice with a yellow glow. 

Recipe: Spiced chickpea croutons

These have a rich, spicy, and slightly nutty flavor. Sprinkle them on your favorite salad, soup, bowls, or use them as high fiber and protein snacks. Leave out the olive oil in the end if you want to store them as snacks. Can be stored dry in an airtight glass container for 3-4 days.

Serving size: 4
Total carbohydrates per serving: 14.3g 
Dietary fiber per serving: 5 g

Ingredients 
2 cans cooked chickpeas - drained and rinsed
3 Tbsp olive oil or Thrive algae oil (neutral taste)
1/2 tsp. ground cayenne
2 tsp. ground turmeric
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. coarse sea salt
Olive oil to drizzle on top when serving (optional)
Lemon peel and juice (season to taste in the end)

Directions
Add and spread chickpeas on a clean towel and rub them dry, discarding loose skins. Add dry chickpeas, oil, and ground spices to a dry skillet and heat on low to medium heat for 3-5 minutes (if using olive oil, make sure to keep the heat at low). Stir to combine. When the chickpeas are golden and warm and covered in spices, remove from the heat. Let cool and serve at room temperature. Drizzle olive oil on top (start with the lesser amount and add more later if looks dry) and garnish with lemon peel and juice. Season to taste.  

Variations: 
Add seeds of any kind to the chickpeas, but remember to heat the seeds gently for a couple of minutes before mixing them with the chickpea spice mix and oil. When seeds begin to pop and smell fragrant, they are done.  

 



Spice up your life!

Cinnamon (parts used: Whole or ground sticks (quills) of dried bark and buds/unripe fruits)

Cinnamon has sweet and warm flavor notes that range from mild to strong (astringent), depending on the source. It is often said that cinnamon will bring sweetness to your savory meals and savory notes to desserts. It is therefore a spice favored by many people around the world. 

If you are most familiar with cinnamon as a part of your flavored coffee and drinks (often made with artificial extracts), you have yet to experience the elegance of ‘true’ cinnamon. Cinnamon- lovers mainly use the following types of soft-stick cinnamon: cassia, Vietnamese cinnamon, and delicate Sri Lanka cinnamon (Ceylon, known as Canela in Mexico). 

Cinnamon has medicinal values and was recently investigated as a potential supplement to manage blood sugar levels, but the daily dose and effects are yet to be fully understood. It has been used historically to increase the “metabolic fire”, and is useful in digesting food, relieving flatulence and reducing abdominal pain amongst many other beneficial activities to increase overall immunity, strength, and vitality. 

Cinnamon pairs well with the following spices: cardamom, clove, caraway, cumin, ginger, cacao powder.
 

Ideas for food combinations with cinnamon: 
  1. Mix ground cinnamon with cacao powder, add to rice milk or milk of your choice together with ice cubes for a savory/sweet Mexican drink. 
  1. Add ground cinnamon and a little maple syrup (optional if you like it sweet) to unsweetened peanut butter together with water to create a delicious dip for your snack board.
  1. All variations of oatmeals and “apples” work well with cinnamon or cassia (see below). 
Recipe: Spicy oatmeal (inspired by Green Kitchen Stories)

Serving size: 2-4
Total carbohydrates per serving (2 pers): 43.3 g 
Dietary fiber per serving: ~ 6.4 g

Ingredients
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup unsweetened almond milk (or milk or your choice or water)
1 ½ cup water 
2 tbsp nuts of your choice, finely chopped (we recommend almonds or walnuts)
½ tsp ground cinnamon 
½ tsp ground cardamom
¼ tsp ground vanilla
3 tbsp organic bone broth (optional)
A large pinch sea salt 

Directions
Add all the ingredients except broth to a medium-sized saucepan and bring to a boil while stirring. Lower the heat and cook until creamy. Stir in the broth towards the end. Garnish with 5-10 chopped nuts and fresh fruit in season. 

 



Spice up your life!

Raw Cacao Powder (unsweetened)
Cacao (originating from the seed of the Theobroma cacao tree) is generally not considered a spice. However, as cacao powder is dry, fermented, aromatic, and flavorful with therapeutic values, I think it fits perfectly within the category of this post.

There are so many amazing things to say about raw cacao. Cacao contains “super” compounds like flavanols, which is behind some of the bitter flavors of cacao and attributed health effects within cardiovascular protection. Cacao is rated to have a high antioxidant capacity and is a rich source of minerals too like magnesium. Magnesium is an essential mineral that supports and regulates many essential processes in the body, including the process of breaking down sugars to yield energy. Studies have shown that magnesium levels tend to be lower in people with type two diabetes, suggesting that people with type two diabetes would benefit from eating a diet rich in high-magnesium foods. 

In addition, ingesting high levels of flavanols has been shown to support a healthy gut microbiome by increasing levels of Bifidobacterium and Lactobacilli (reference).

Cacao is so incredibly nutritious and good for you, but remember to eat it in moderation (a couple of times a week is fine, but not an everyday treat) due to its content of theobromine, a powerful stimulant that affects the nervous system, and oxalic acid (found in e.g. rhubarb and spinach) that may interfere with calcium absorption. 


Extra tips for healthy cacao eating and drinking - inspired by My New Roots
  1. Cacao is not cocoa! Cocoa is processed at higher temperatures than cacao after fermentation of the beans. This extra heating step above 104F may destroy important enzymes and nutrients. Cacao is therefore considered more nutritious than cocoa with a higher magnesium and iron content. 
  1. Look for and purchase only certified organic raw cacao! Otherwise, you might be ingesting chemicals from irradiation and pesticides that are standard practice in growing cacao beans. 
  1. Cacao is an essential ingredient in many beverages, like in our recipe here below. One fun way to optimize the digestion of your chocolate drink is to “chew” or whirl it around in your mouth as you would with any other food. This is especially important for the first few mouthfuls. The digestion already begins in your mouth, and chewing is an important step for enzymatic actions to take place. This will prepare your stomach for the treat that is on its way down to be further processed. 
  1. Very cold or freezing chocolate drinks will slow down your digestion! The cooler it is, the longer it will take to digest it. Wait a little time before drinking it or leave out the ice cubes. 

Recipe: Raw cacao shake
This recipe contains bananas. The greener the banana is when you freeze it down for the drink, the more fiber (“resistant starch”) you will get. For a sweeter version, use a ripe banana. Bananas also contain serotonin - our happy hormone, which has motility effects. So the recipe here below will definitely be a mood-booster that is also good for your digestion if you remember to ‘chew’ it. The smoothie is nutritious, delicious, and creamy, but is also on the heavier side. Have it for breakfast and add oats to it, or as a nutritious weekend-snack that will keep you full and satisfied until the next meal. 

Serves 2-4 depending on glass size
Dietary fiber content per serving: ~ 3.9g

Ingredients
¼ cup hemp seeds (or use overnight soaked almonds)
2 tbsp. raw cacao powder 
1 large frozen banana (we recommend unripe banana) 
3 dried dates without pits, soaked in water for 30 minutes
2 tbsp. rolled oats, soaked overnight in water (optional)
A pinch of sea salt
½ cup unsweetened coconut water
½ cup of water 
4 ice cubes 

Directions
Remove the water from the soaked dried dates. Blend all ingredients together, add extra water or coconut water (unsweetened) to thin it if desired.

Variations: 
During summer, I like to blend it with fresh berries (strawberries, blackberries, raspberries). 
If you like it crispy, add cacao nibs and/or toasted coconut on top. 
Instead of ice cubes, you can add frozen broccoli or spinach to boost it with extra nutrients. 


Conclusion
If you are still a little afraid to begin experimenting with new spices and combinations in your everyday cooking after reading this, begin with buying a better salt and pepper. No salts and peppers are equal, and you will taste the difference immediately when switching from table salt to a higher quality salt like Maldon sea salt or fleur de sel. Instead of black peppercorns, try white, green, or pink. They all have unique attributes.

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