Herbs and Spices For Flavor

Seasonal spices

Flavor or lack thereof, is a common complaint when trying to switch to a healthy diet. While there isn’t any way to make broccoli taste like chocolate or cabbage taste like macaroni, there are ways to add flavor without adding calories. One option is to use spices! Spices will help you to skip adding piles of cheese on top your next dish, frying in large amounts of oil, or adding salty or canned / bottled sauces.

Cooking with herbs and spices can boost flavor without adding fat, salt, and sugar. They also have great health benefits due to their antioxidant properties, maybe playing a role in reducing inflammation and disease prevention. However, keep in mind that many herbs are not well researched: therefore, it’s unclear if many of their claimed health benefits are true.  Dietitians / nutritionists may not have ample evidence to recommend herbs and spices for specific health benefits but they can be recommended for their antioxidant properties and as flavorful substitutes for sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats.

Wondering what antioxidants are? Antioxidants are substances that may protect cells from the damage caused by free radicals, thus reducing oxidative stress in our bodies. We can get a variety of antioxidants by eating a wide variety of plant foods such as fruits, vegetables and spices. Science is just beginning to understand the variety of antioxidants in plants and how they benefit our bodies.

I have listed some spices and what we know about their potential benefits. Additional information is available at the links below.

Ginger: Ginger is abundant in China and is also very good value! Ginger contains several compounds that may provide health benefits. Ginger is rich in the antioxidant 6-gingerol which studies have found may reduce nausea (particularly in pregnant women).  Ginger also provides vitamin C, magnesium and potassium.

Cinnamon:  There are different varieties of cinnamon.  The cassia variety is native to China and is the type most commonly sold in the US.  Cinnamaldehyde is an antioxidant compound found in cinnamon which may have more potent anti-oxidant effects than spinach, chard, or cabbage.


Turmeric:  Turmeric is often used in curries and can add flavor to a side dish of vegetables. It has the antioxidant compound Curcumin which is bright yellow. This herb has been the focus of intense research. Preliminary studies have found that it may as effective in controlling knee pain from osteoarthritis as  ibuprofen.

Oregano:  This herb can add flavor to a variety of Western flavored dishes, particularly soup for the chilly Shanghai winter.  It’s rich in antioxidants such as thymol and rosmarinic acids. A teaspoon of dried oregano has as many antioxidants as a cup of sweet potatoes!


Until the next time – Eat Well Shanghai! 😉 – Jess W.


NCCIH – Herbs at a glance

Today’s Dietitian – Winning Herb and Spice combinations