More spices with super-healing powers
Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. Grown mostly in the Middle East, saffron threads are actually the stigmas of a particular kind of crocus, each of which needs to be carefully gathered by hand.
Still, its high price might be worth it for some of its health benefits. According to a 2007 animal study, saffron had antidepressant properties similar to Prozac. And a small human study in 2006 showed antidepressant effects higher than a placebo.
Another study showed that saffron increased blood flow to the brain, which might help increase cognitive performance, and a 2009 study in Italy showed that saffron had beneficial effects on the genes regulating vision cells, potentially slowing or reversing degenerative eye diseases.
How much: Saffron is pricy, but you don't need much to make a big impact. "As little as a tenth of a teaspoon has been shown to have benefits," says nutritionist Beth Reardon.
Serving suggestions: Crumble a few threads into water or stock for paella, risotto, or other rice dishes -- including a subtly spiced Indian dessert called kheer.
Tip: The flavor and health benefits of most spices decline over time, and saffron is a particularly delicate spice. Make sure to keep your saffron bottle in a cool, dark place, and buy only the amount you think you can use in three to six months.
Basil, while often associated with Italian food, actually comes from India, where it's traditionally used to treat asthma, stress, and diabetes.
Like thyme, basil has strong antimicrobial and antiviral properties, even against nasty bugs like Listeria and E. coli. Basil is a natural COX inhibitor, which means it's especially great for anyone with arthritis or other inflammatory health problems. Basil is also a great source of beta-carotene, which turns into vitamin A, as well as magnesium, iron, and calcium.
How much: Aim for a tablespoon of fresh basil or quarter to half a teaspoon of dried basil three times a week.
Serving suggestion: Basil epitomizes summer foods, such as cold tomato or pasta salads. But don't stop there. Add it to pizza, pasta, or anything with tomatoes any time of year.
Tip: Having trouble finding good basil when it's not summer? Check your freezer section. Several companies freeze fresh basil in single-serving pop-out containers -- and since its frozen while fresh, it retains most of its nutrients. You can also freeze herbs yourself when they're in season -- just lay them flat on a baking sheet and then transfer them to a plastic bag or Tupperware container when they're frozen.
People have been cooking with chili peppers for a long time -- almost 10,000 years, according to archaeologists. Since then, they've been used for everything from spicing up food to deterring would-be attackers. Japanese karate athletes eat chili to strengthen their willpower, and African farmers use it to keep elephants away from their crops.
Luckily, you don't need elephant-size quantities to get the health benefits of these potent peppers. Studies have shown that capsaicin, the active ingredient in peppers, works as a great topical pain reliever for headaches, arthritis, and other chronic pain problems. Capsaicin inhibits the release of P-protein, which in turn interrupts the transmission of constant pain signals to the brain.
If you don't feel like smearing it on yourself, oral capsaicin has been linked to the release of endorphins and the regulation of blood sugar. And scientists have demonstrated anticancer properties in test tube studies.
How much: Don't like spicy foods? Don't worry -- as little as an eighth of a teaspoon can have positive health benefits.
Serving suggestions: There's a whole world of chili peppers out there, from the mild poblano to the fiery habanero. It's worth experimenting to find your favorite. Chipotle and ancho chili powders have been popular in recent years for their smoky zing, and they work particularly well in salsas, soups, chicken dishes -- and even in caramel or chocolate desserts.
Tip: If you overdo the chili pepper, don't reach for a glass of water -- pour a glass of milk instead. Capsaicin isn't water-soluble, but the caseins in milk block chili pepper heat effectively.