Spice girl: Laura Brown Illustrations: Poppy Palin

Can Turmeric really improve your memory? Is Ginger good for osteoarthritis? Some herbs and spices make some fairly lofty claims about their health benefits. We take five, Turmeric, Ginger, Cinnamon, Fenugreek and Star Anise to see if they can make a difference to your health and, if so, how to eat more of them.

Ancient scripts

Much of the herbalist and nutritional understanding of the capacity of herbs and spices in medicines comes from Chinese, Ayurvedic and Egyptian tradition. The practice of herbalism – using plants and seeds for their supposed therapeutic properties – dates back over 5,000 years.

In the Papyrus Ebers, for example, which dates from 1550 BC, there’s information on over 850 plant medicines. Turmeric has been used in India in Ayurvedic medicine since as early as 4,000 BC while in China seeds that were probably used for herbalism have been found in sites dating from the Shang Dynasty.

Super Spice

If traditional Chinese or Ayurvedic medicine are to be believed (and who are we to say they aren’t?) then Turmeric and Ginger Root do a lot more than add colour and flavour to meals.

Both have been shown to help prevent cancer in studies. A phase 1 clinical trial tested the active ingredient in Turmeric, Curcumin, giving it to 25 patients with precancerous changes in different organs. The study seemed to show that Curcumin could stop the precancerous changes from becoming cancer. There are also lower rates of cancer in countries where a lot of curcumin is eaten over a long period of time. Another study, published in Cancer Prevention Research, gave 30 healthy adults 2 grams of powdered Ginger Root (with a placebo for control) for four weeks. The Ginger helped cut inflammation in the gut, associated with cancer. More research is needed, but these are promising results.

Ginger, as an anti-inflammatory is also good for those who have cold hands, says medical herbalist and nutritional therapist Natalia Kerkham from Warrington. “I use ginger as a circulatory stimulant to get the circulation right out to the edges – great for people with cold hands and feet, for example.  In my experience it can also be useful for period pain, especially if it’s the sort that’s better for a hot water bottle”.

Soothing balm

As well as period pain, herbs and spices are often believed to be good for happy digestive systems. Ginger is often drunk as a tea for digestion, to reduce bloating (similar to Peppermint). Cinnamon is often taken after a heavy meal while in the Papyrus Ebers, Fenugreek is advised to cleanse the stomach. Modern day herbalists suggest it is good for those with stomach ulcers. Star Anise is meant to be good for wind and indigestion.

Some herbalists highlight Cinnamon and Fenugreek for their capacity to reduce the blood sugar, good for those with type II diabetes. However the jury’s still out, with some studies showing a drop in blood sugar in line with prescription meds, but others warning of contra-indications when using the Chinese variety (the most commonly found in supermarkets here). It certainly isn’t recommended for those with liver problems and the two shouldn’t be taken together.

A pinch of spice?

So, armed with all this conflicting information, what do we do? How far should we take centuries old recommendations for spices as fact, with our more scientific approach to medicine in modern times? There is, says Natalia Kerkham, some real rubbish on the Internet. Instead, for those who are interested she recommends reading trusted authors; The Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine (DK Natural Health) by Andrew Chevallier, The Ayurveda Bible by Anne McIntyre and The Complete Medicinal Herbal: A Practical Guide to the Healing Properties of Herbs by Penelope Ody.

Is it dangerous? “No indeed!  All the spices have been used for centuries, even millennia, which suggests that they’re pretty safe.”

It is, however, all about quantity, she says. “One of the key points with spices is that they’re traditionally used in small quantities. Large amounts in food don’t tend to taste great, and that’s a good guide.  Regularly using a wide variety of spices, all in small quantities, gives a wide range of health benefits.  The amounts you’ll get in food can help you to stay healthy – it’s a preventative measure.  To actually treat an existing condition you may need far, far more than is safe or even feasible to incorporate into the diet, and that’s when to get professional advice from a properly qualified herbalist or nutritional therapist.”

Drink Up

To add more Turmeric, Ginger and even Fenugreek make your own herbal tea using seeds or powdered form. It’ll give you a little of the herb to do you good. If you don’t like tea but are into smoothies add a sprinkling of ground spice to your morning mash up.

Turmeric can be added to almost any vegetable dish. Roasted cauliflower, tossed in Turmeric before being put in the oven with a little olive oil, adds a yellow hue and spicy warmth.

Cinnamon can be sprinkled on cereal, add on toast or use as an alternative to sugar.

Star Anise’s rich aniseed flavour is often used in Chinese cooking (it’s one of the five spices in Chinese five spice). It’s surprisingly good with carrots, goes well with mackerel and, for those with a sweet tooth, the ground version goes well with dark chocolate.


May reduce blood pressure, particularly in people diagnosed Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 16.38.21as pre-diabetic or type 2 diabetic. Kills off bacteria known to cause gum disease.  Has shown an ability to stop medication-resistant yeast infections, and is a powerful antioxidant. Buy the Ceylon variety. Take a level teaspoon a day in a smoothie, or sprinkle into egg dishes.


A powerful anti-inflammatory,  shown to be comparable to Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 16.42.01hydrocortisone. Helps us to ward off infection and the oxidative damage of free radicals. Has been shown to be effective for treatment for inflammatory bowel disease. Take a turmeric extract that contains significant amounts of curcumin, with black pepper, to absorb more of the good stuff. Use powder in curries and stews.


Its estrogen-like properties have been found to help lessen theScreen Shot 2016-05-12 at 16.43.23common symptoms of menopause and PMS. Research studies show that fenugreek consumption helps to reduce the level of low density Lipoprotein (LDL)  cholesterol, and its fibre content helps prevent colonic inflammation. Seeds, ground into a paste, may help with skin complaints such as eczema. Roast the seeds for curries, use the leaves in salads.


May relieve nausea, seasickness and stomach cramps. Has Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 16.45.45been shown to be effective treatment for morning sickness. In a controlled trial, people with osteoarthritis of the knee who took ginger extract had less pain and required less pain medication. May reduce blood sugar levels. Has also been found to reduce the symptoms of menstrual pain. Buy it fresh, and peel and grate into smoothies, or bake with fish.

Star Anise 

Contains a precursor to the antiviral medication known as Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 16.47.18Tamiflu. Taken in combination with quercetin, a plant-based nutrient, it significantly ramped up immune function to resist viral infections. Helps target, and control, anti-oxidants, which can damage cell function. Known to have antifungal properties, warding off Candida flare ups. Peps up a pork casserole a treat.