Think herbs and spices are only for a bit of decoration or colour? Think again. These humble little foods can offer you much more than a little bit of unusual flavour - and may be the key to boost your physical performance and fitness. Alex Gazzola reports on herb heroes and spicy saviours…
Mention antioxidants and you will probably immediately think of fruits and vegetables, especially richly coloured varieties: purple anthocyanins in berries; orange carotenes in carrots; red lycopene in tomatoes. And yet these richly beneficial chemicals are also available from other sources, and some experts believe we’ve been shunning these alternatives for too long, possibly to the detriment of our physical health.
According to performance nutritionists from the English Institute of Sport (www.eis2win.co.uk), culinary herbs and spices are also rich in antioxidants, often more so than fruits and vegetables pound for pound, and they offer significant health benefits to all active and moderately active sportspeople, offering protection from the stresses and rigours of training.
Kevin Currell, a senior performance nutritionist with the EIS who works with the British triathlon team, says that while running and exercise are obviously beneficial, they can increase the ‘stress’ on your muscles due to production of additional free radicals - unstable molecules which are created during every day metabolic processes. These reactive free radicals cause damage by interacting with DNA, cells and enzymes in the body, and they can only be neutralised and ‘mopped up’ by antioxidants.
“Whilst some stress on muscles is normal, things can get out of balance,” says Kevin. “Those who exercise should consume more antioxidants than the general public to counteract this. The more training you do, the more stress is placed on the body, the greater the free radical production, and the more antioxidants the body needs to cope. If you’re preparing for a marathon, for example, you’ll need more when your training blocks are most intensive and high-impact - say at two or three months before the race”.
Only in recent years has it been realised that herbs and spices score highly on the antioxidant scale, thanks to research from the US Department of Agriculture. Their data revealed, for example, that the equivalent of a portion of red grapes’ worth of antioxidants could be found in a mere half teaspoon of cumin seeds, while the same quantity of dried ginger matched a portion of red tomatoes. Although used sparingly in traditional Western cooking, Kevin believes they are a vital tool which we have ignored, and which other cultures have embraced.
Emma Wells, a nutritional therapist from Smart Nutrition (www.smartnutrition.co.uk), herself a keen runner, agrees they have potential.
“If someone comes to me with a sports-related injury with inflammation, I’d use spices as part of the nutritional support plan,” she says.
“First, I’d get inflammatory foods - meat, cheese, butter and dairy - out of the diet, and then look at boosting anti-inflammatory foods, such as fish, seeds and nuts. As far as spices are concerned, ginger and turmeric are the two anti-inflammatory powerhouses. If you cook Chinese or Indian, you’ll obviously benefit naturally, but with turmeric you need to go in big, and take supplements”.
Supplemental spices are increasingly available, but according to the EIS, dietary sources of antioxidants are preferable in most cases, as excessive intake of supplements can lead to problems.
“Dietary sources also generally offer a better quality of antioxidant,” says Kevin. “The manufacturing processes involved to get antioxidants into a supplement may affect their form and function - they are sensitive souls which break down easily”.
He adds: “Another issue is that there are thousands of antioxidants and they tend to work in synergy with one another, as a team. When they occur in food sources, they work together and offer combined benefits that some supplements, which isolate individual antioxidants, may not offer”.
Kevin says a homemade curry is a terrific source of antioxidants, boasting a variety of potent spices, such as turmeric, ginger and cumin. But foreign dishes aside, we use very little spice in cooking. Arguably, it’s an even worse situation with herbs, which are often used merely as decoration - witness the sad wilted sprig of parsley added at the top or side of a meal.
“It’s a pity we don’t use herbs as in other cultures, where you’ll find parsley and coriander used as salad leaves,” says Emma. “The problem is people don’t grow them, they’re expensive to buy, and you get very little when you do buy them - and so people just don’t think about them or use them. To get the most from the active ingredients, you do need to use herbs and spices quite generously in your food”.
Emma acknowledges that for those who exercise, thinking about your herb and spice intake does add to the long list of considerations that rightly preoccupy our minds.
“Fitness fanatics who see me seem worried about the carbs and proteins they’re consuming,” she says. “They ask when they should eat and they ask how they should eat. Obviously they’re always thinking about their energy levels, glycogen stores, recovery, as well as their stride, shoes, clothing, equipment, times, performance levels… it’s a long, long list. Sadly, antioxidants and free radicals come way down that list”.
She adds: “Some people are still shocked to learn that exercise increases free radical production, but everyone needs to be aware of it - and that food, herbs and spices included, can be a powerful means of tackling it”. Research shows that not all herbs and spices are equal when it comes to antioxidant ratings. Some of the best herbs include oregano, basil and rosemary, while top spices include cloves, turmeric, chilli, garlic, cinnamon, cloves, mustard, cumin, ginger and paprika.
Here are some ideas on incorporating some into your diet:
Cinnamon: Terrific for blood sugar control, this is great sprinkled over cereal as a sweetener or stirred generously into porridge.
Ginger: Stir-fries aside, you can slice it and brew it into tea, or add it to your juicing. Anti-inflammatory and anti-nausea too, with potential for easing muscular and arthritic pain.
Turmeric: Curries aside, it’s great in fish stews, savoury rice dishes, and with pulses such as lentils - especially good for inflammation. Contains an antioxidant called curcumin, which has demonstrated anti-cancer potential in trials.
Peppermint / fennel tea: To naturally settle your tummy after runners’ diarrhoea - both are soothing on the digestive system.
Chamomile / lemon grass: Soothing and relaxing qualities to help wind down after a long run.
Garlic: Immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory, this is a great support when training hard - don’t be afraid to chop a little and add to tomato salad, as raw is best!
Rosemary / thyme: Strong herbs such as these may offer protection against dangerous compounds created when meat is cooked. Researchers at Kansas State University in a study said that adding rosemary extract to ground beef prior to cooking reduced the formation of HCAs - heterocyclic amines - which are carcinogenic chemicals formed when meat is cooked at high temperatures. Add lots of pungent herbs to meats when marinating before cooking.