Spices That Supercharge Your Health

Meet 10 spices that have body and mood benefits — and pump up every dish.

A Variety of Spices

When was the last time you went on a shopping spree in the spice aisle? Or just poked around in the back corners of your spice cabinet? Chances are, it's been a while. Seasonings spark up flavor in a big way — so why do we forget, beyond the usual chili pot, to break out those toasty, zippy wonders, much less finish a jar's worth?

We gotta start raising our spice game, says Lisa Young, Ph.D., R.D., an adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University, because with the right seasonings, we can "minimize the need for excess salt, fat, and sometimes even sugar."

Research, including investigations funded by the National Institutes of Health, also suggests that specific spices may help fight diseases such as cancer and arthritis. "Many spices contain concentrated levels of beneficial compounds that possibly rival the effectiveness of certain drugs," says Tieraona Low Dog, M.D., fellowship director for the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine and author of Healthy at Home: Get Well and Stay Well Without Prescriptions. Scientists aren't sure yet how those benefits carry over into the kitchen, but spices are definitely a mouthwatering essential in any stay-healthy eating plan, Low Dog says.

Ready to spice things up? These recipes and seasoning tips will get you going, but you don't even need a recipe — just play.

(All dishes serve 4, except where noted.)

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A little flowery, a little bitter — in a good way! Quickly soak saffron threads in water before adding to the pot. This brings out the flavor and helps give dishes like rice a great golden color.

Shrimp with Saffron: Soak ¼ tsp crushed saffron in 1 Tbsp warm water, 3 min. Cook 1 cup chopped onion in 2 Tbsp olive oil with 2 tsp minced garlic, the saffron water, and ½ tsp coarse salt, plus pepper to taste, over medium-high heat, 4 min. Add 1 lb peeled and cleaned shrimp and cook, 4 min. Stir in 2 Tbsp lime juice. 160 cal

Rice Dishes: Soak a pinch or 2 of crushed saffron in 1 Tbsp warm water, 3 min. Stir into risotto or other rice dishes.

Soups: Soak a pinch or 2 of crushed saffron in 1 Tbsp warm water, 3 min. Stir into tomato soup, fish chowder, or minestrone.

Saffron may help ease depression, because each pinch delivers an antioxidant called crocin. Several small studies have found that saffron or crocin pills get results when used alone or with antidepressants.

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Fennel Seeds

These slightly sweet seeds have a licoricelike flavor that is super in Italian dishes and makes all sorts of foods sing. To crush the seeds, use the flat side of a chef's knife.

Carrot Soup with Fennel Seeds: Cook 1 cup chopped onion in 2 Tbsp olive oil with 1 minced garlic clove, 1½ tsp crushed fennel seeds, and ½ tsp coarse salt, plus pepper to taste, over medium heat, 3 min. Add 1 lb carrots (cut into 1-inch pieces; 2½ cups) and 2½ cups low-sodium vegetable broth. Simmer, covered, 20 min. Puree in a blender. Dollop with plain 2% Greek yogurt. 146 cal

Tomato-Fennel Pasta: Add up to 1½ tsp crushed fennel seeds to marinara sauce. Toss with whole wheat pasta and grated Parmesan.

Fennel-Coated Salmon: Crush 1½ tsp fennel seeds. Mix with olive oil, lemon zest, coarse salt, and pepper. Use as a rub for salmon fillets, then bake.

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As with fresh, ground dried ginger's got fire. You might know the spice best as the magic in gingerbread cookies, but it also makes a delish addition to veggie side dishes and hot drinks.

Roasted Spiced Squash: Toss 1½ lb cubed butternut squash (5 cups) with 1½ Tbsp olive oil, 1 minced garlic clove, 1 tsp ground ginger, ½ tsp ground cumin, ½ tsp coarse salt, and ¼ tsp cinnamon, plus pepper to taste. Roast squash cubes at 425°F, stirring once, 30 min. 107 cal

Ginger Tea: Bring 2 cups water, 1 Tbsp each lemon juice and honey, ¾ tsp ground ginger, ¼ tsp turmeric, and a pinch of cayenne pepper to a boil. Serves 2; 37 cal

Gingered Green Beans: Boil green beans until crisp-tender. Heat some chopped garlic and ground ginger in olive oil, then add green beans and toss to coat. Sprinkle with a pinch of coarse salt and a squeeze of lemon juice.

This zesty spice may soothe pregnancy-related nausea, according to a 2014 paper in Nutrition Journal that reviewed dried and fresh ginger, ginger tablets, and more. Scientists have also been testing different forms of ginger as an alternative to drugs for arthritis pain, menstrual cramps, and migraines.

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Deliciously earthy and a smidge exotic, too. The secret ingredient of many chili powders, cumin is brilliant in bean dishes and also a good spice for anything Indian- or Mexican-inspired.

Chickpea and Pita Sandwich: Puree in a food processor one 15-oz can chickpeas, drained; 3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil; 2 Tbsp lemon juice; 1 tsp ground cumin; and ½ tsp coarse salt, plus pepper to taste. Serve in whole wheat pita halves with tomato and arugula. 293 cal

Spiced Salad Dressing: Make an olive oil and lime juice dressing with a drizzle of honey and up to ½ tsp ground cumin. Toss with avocado or bean salad.

Soups: Add sprinkles of ground cumin to bean soup (or any soup that could use a flavor kick).

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Smoked Paprika

With its addictive hints of char, this spice turns simple meals into standouts. The smoked version is like grilled yum in a jar.

Spiced Sweet Potatoes: Cut 1¾ lb sweet potatoes (about 3) into ½-inch-thick wedges and toss with 2 Tbsp olive oil, 2 tsp smoked paprika, 2 minced garlic cloves, 1 tsp coarse salt, and ½ tsp pepper. Roast at 450°F, 25 min. 219 cal

Red Pepper Sauce: Puree in a food processor one 12-oz jar roasted red peppers, drained; ½ cup sliced almonds; ½ cup grated Parmesan; 1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil; 1 Tbsp red wine vinegar; 1 tsp smoked paprika; 1 minced garlic clove; and 2 tsp coarse salt, plus pepper to taste. Serve with broiled fish or roasted meat. 66 cal per 2 Tbsp

Smoky Scrambled Eggs: For every 2 large eggs, beat in tsp smoked paprika and a generous pinch each of coarse salt and pepper.

Smoked Paprika Roast Chicken: Using your favorite basic roast chicken recipe, rub chicken with 1 Tbsp olive oil mixed with 2 tsp smoked paprika, 1 tsp coarse salt, and ½ tsp pepper.

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Smells like Christmas, but it's not just for the once-a-year eggnog. Nutmeg can flavor up both sweet and savory dishes anytime.

Caramelized Pears: Cut 2 pears into wedges. Melt 1 Tbsp unsalted butter with 1 Tbsp honey, 1½ tsp pure vanilla extract, tsp nutmeg, and tsp cinnamon over medium-high heat. Add pears and cook until glazed, about 7 min, turning in syrup. Serve over plain 2% Greek yogurt. 97 cal

Sautéed Baby Spinach: Sauté baby spinach with garlic in olive oil. Sprinkle with nutmeg to taste and toss with lemon juice.

Spiced Mashed Potatoes: Sprinkle nutmeg to taste over mashed sweet or white potatoes.

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Nicely tangy and a touch sour, kind of like citrus. This curry powder regular loves beans, soups, veggies, rice, eggs — you name it.

Roasted Chickpeas: Toss one 15-oz can chickpeas, drained, with 1 Tbsp olive oil, 1 tsp turmeric, ½ tsp cumin, 1 minced garlic clove, and ¼ tsp coarse salt, plus pepper to taste. Roast at 425°F, shaking baking sheet occasionally, 18 min. 134 cal

Cauliflower-Coconut Soup: Cook 1½ cups chopped onion in 2 Tbsp olive oil with 3 minced garlic cloves, 1 tsp turmeric, and ¾ tsp coarse salt, plus pepper to taste, over medium-high heat, 4 min. Stir in 2 cups water, 1¾ lb cauliflower florets (9 cups), and 1 cup light coconut milk. Simmer, 15 min. Puree in a blender. 173 cal

Spiced Scrambled Eggs: For every 2 large eggs, beat in ¼ tsp ground cumin and tsp turmeric. Add a generous pinch each of coarse salt and pepper, and cook.

The spice aisle's overachiever, turmeric is full of the antioxidant curcumin, which may be a weapon against cancer, suggests a 2015 review in the journal Molecules. (Curcumin could also ease arthritis symptoms.) Team turmeric with black pepper and your body may absorb even more of that curcumin goodness.

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Red Pepper Flakes

Don't save them just for pizza night — these little hotties add some fierce to veggies and much more. Use them anytime you crave a bit of heat.

Hot-Pepper Carrots: Toss 2 lb carrots, halved lengthwise, with 1½ Tbsp olive oil, 1 tsp coarse salt, and ½ tsp red pepper flakes. Roast at 425°F, 30 min. 138 cal

Spiced Mango: Sprinkle cubed mango with lime juice and red pepper flakes.

Feta Toasts: Top slices of whole wheat toast with crumbled feta, red pepper flakes, thyme, and honey.

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Cinnamon's sweet-and-spicy warmth is made for fruit, nuts, and of course, hot chocolate. It can even sub for sugar in coffee.

Banana-Date Smoothies: Puree in a blender 1 large banana with ½ cup plain 2% Greek yogurt, 1 cup ice, 2 Tbsp chopped dates, and 1 tsp cinnamon until smooth. Serves 2; 129 cal

Quinoa Breakfast Porridge: Reheat leftover cooked quinoa with 2% milk stirred in to desired thickness. Sprinkle with cinnamon to taste and top with dried fruit and a drizzle of pure maple syrup.

The fragrant powder you swirl into your A.M. oatmeal could come with a side of health benefits. In some studies, daily cinnamon supplements lowered blood sugar levels.

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Black Pepper

An everyday staple with a still-serious hit of heat. More than a seasoning basic, pepper can also be the star of the show.

Lemon-Pepper Shrimp: Cook 1¼ lb peeled and cleaned shrimp in 2 Tbsp olive oil with 2 tsp minced garlic, ¾ tsp pepper, and ½ tsp coarse salt over medium-high heat, 4 min. Stir in 1 Tbsp lemon juice and 1 tsp zest. Serve shrimp with lemon wedges. 165 cal

Hot & Sweet Roasted Pineapple: Mix 3 Tbsp pure maple syrup with ½ tsp pepper and ½ tsp pure vanilla extract. Toss ½-inch-thick slices of fresh pineapple (4 cups) with half of syrup. Roast at 450°F, 10 min. Brush with rest of syrup and roast 10 min more. Serve for dessert with plain 2% Greek yogurt. 142 cal

Zingy Goat Cheese: Season soft goat cheese with pepper to taste and serve with sliced pears.

Note: Always ask a health care professional about your specific medical needs before taking a supplement or changing your diet.

This story originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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