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“Healing Spices” Author Cooks Global Flavors for Better Health

Posted: Jan 03, 2012

Editor’s Note: In his search for safe anti-inflammatory agents, University of Texas research scientist Bharat B. Aggarwal began 20 years ago to research the very spices that had always been a staple of his Indian diet. He found that many of them could be safely moved out of his kitchen cabinet to his medicine cabinet, as he says in his newly released book, Healing Spices.

NAM: You talk about the benefits of ajowan not only as a spice that adds zest to curries and aroma to breads and biscuits, but as a remedy for such maladies as high blood pressure, cough, asthma, heartburn and even flatulence. The spice was tested on laboratory animals and the conclusions were drawn from the way they responded. But can those results be extrapolated to humans?

Aggarwal: Whether animal studies can be extrapolated to humans – obviously not. However, there are indications that what we learn from animals’ response is not any different from what we already know about spices. In research, either you go from bedside to bench, or you go from bench to bedside.

NAM: It’s interesting that you have moved the almond from the nut house to the spice house, as you humorously put it. Explain why, please.

Aggarwal: Nobody knows the true definition of a spice. In Sanskrit, spices are part of medicine (aushadi). Almonds, with their anti-inflammatory properties could benefit the heart, which is why I say they have earned a place in the plethora of spices.

NAM: You say the pungent spice, asafoetida, so popular in South Indian cooking not only for its flavor but because it aids in digestion, could be an effective treatment for the swine flu. Would the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) buy this claim?

Aggarwal: It’s immaterial whether the CDC buys this or not. The spice played a storied role in the United States during the influenza epidemic of 1918. The Spanish flu, as it was called, ravaged the world for 18 months, claiming close to 100 million people. At the time, thousands of people walked the streets with a small bag of asafoetida tied around their necks to stave off the infection. The United States Pharmacopeia [USP, the official U.S. standard for medicines] sanctioned the spice as a flu remedy.

NAM: What conclusions have you drawn from your research on turmeric, a must-have in most Indian kitchens? You characterize it is a spice superstar and one of nature’s most beneficial healers. What are the top benefits of this spice?

Aggarwal: There are 5,000 scientific reports and 200 clinical trials done with turmeric. Whether that is enough nobody can say. It is a potent anti-inflammatory agent that controls multiple pathways linked to various chronic diseases.

NAM: I always thought turmeric was the king of spices, but you allot that title to green cardamon. Why so?

Aggarwal: Every spice has its own place. Mixing and matching them is a good thing. Green cardamon is good for some things but not everything.

NAM: Is there any solid scientific evidence to back your claim that the incidence of Alzheimer’s and cancer is lower in India than in most western countries – and that that could be attributed to the Indians’ spice-rich diets. It’s easier to document the incidence of those two diseases in the urban cities of India, but how does one know how prevalent those diseases are in rural areas, which is where the majority of Indians live?

Aggarwal: That Alzheimer’s is lower in India than in the United States is a fact. But whether it is due to ingesting turmeric or other spices nobody can say. However, spices do have the potential to control Alzheimer, as is shown by numerous recent studies.

NAM: As you say in your book, you’ve got to know the spices in order to appreciate them. How do you persuade Americans – most of whom would like to get in and out of their kitchens quickly – to spice up their food?

Aggarwal: Americans, in general, are more receptive than other nationalities. If they are convinced that spices are good for them, they will do whatever it takes to include them in their diet. However, only 20 percent of them cook at home; the rest all eat out. So we need to convince restaurants that spices are good for their customers. I just found out that McDonald’s restaurants in India make hamburgers with spices, and people enjoy it. They should do the same in the United States.

Bharat B Aggarwal is professor of cancer medicine and chief of the Cytokine Research Laboratory at the Department of Experimental Therapeutics at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

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