New Uses for Spices
By Beatrice Trum Hunter
Spices have long been values for their ability to preserve foods against rancidity, and to add variety of flavor to an otherwise bland, monotonous diet. In many cultures, the pharmacological properties of certain spices have been recognized, and they have been used therapeutically.
More recently, due to the problems of foodborne diseases, spices are under investigation for their antimicrobial properties. The present interest in dietary supplements and functional foods has sparked activity to identify, isolate, and utilize bioactive ingredients in spices, such as sulfides, thiols, terpenes, and their derivatives, phenol, glycosides, alcohols, aldehydes and their esters.
Professor Daniel Fung and his associates at Kansas State University have been researching spices as antimicrobials. They studied 23 different spices with fresh meat (ground beef) and processed meat (salami) which had been contaminated intentionally with the virulent pathogen E. coli 0157:H7. Clove had the strongest antimicrobial effect, followed by cinnamon, garlic, oregano, and sage. The inhibiting effect of garlic increased with the rise in cooking temperature. Garlic contains allicin and other sulfur-containing compounds that suppress harmful organisms. Other spices that demonstrated antimicrobial effects against E. coli 0157:H7 in ground beef included clove (from its eugenol and carnosol, and cineole); and oregano (from its thymol, carvacrol, and borneol).
Other spices too, have been found to possess antimicrobial properties. Hot peppers inhibiting Bacillus cereus, and Staphylococcus aureus; and Salmonella typhimurium; mustard, E. coli, Pseudomonas aeruginosa; pepper, Clostridium botulinum and Lactobacillus micrococcus; and sage, Listeria monocytogenes.
Dr. Fung and his colleagues added cinnamon to pasteurized apple juice,that had been contaminated purposely with E. coli 0157:H7. The cinnamon showed antimicrobial activity in the juice, even after three days of storage at room temperature, or up to eight weeks of storage at a cooler temperature.
The researchers reported that they did not determine whether foods, spiced at a high enough level to be effective in controlling pathogens, would be palatable. Nor did they consider that spices be regarded as a replacement for safe food practices. However, they concluded that if more spices are added to cooking, both at home and by food processors, the practice will reduce and inactivate pathogens. Spices can be a useful additional protective measure in safe food handling practices.
Allyl isothiocyanate, a compound in horseradish, is a natural inhibitor of pathogenic microbes such as, Listeria, E. coli, and S. aureus. Researchers at the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA's)
Agricultural Research Station at Oklahoma State University investigated allyl isothiocyanate, and found that it exhibited excellent antibacterial and antifungal activity. They explored the possibility that this substance could be useful in packaged cooked uncured meats to prevent the growth of food poisoning bacteria.
Rosemary contains antioxidant characteristics, and is being used to prevent rancidity in fat containing products such as poultry, pork, and beef. The carnosic acid in rosemary accounts for its antioxidant activity. It can replace synthetic antioxidants that have been used to prevent fat-containing foods from turning rancid.
For many centuries Inca farmers used mint leaves to keep stored potatoes sound. Knowledge of this practice spurred Dr. Stephen Vaughn and his colleagues at USDA's Agricultural Research Service at Peoria, Illinois to study spice extracts. They discovered that vaporized oils from cinnamon, cumin, or thyme, applied to potatoes, kept them from sprouting for as long as 11 months, and also protected them from storage-rot fungi. The cooked potatoes had no unusual flavor.
If potatoes sprout prematurely, they soften and lose weight. Much of their starch turns to sugar, and when the potatoes are cooked, they turn an unattractive dark brown. They become undesirable for french fries and potato chips, and represent an economic loss. The spice extracts may prove to be effective for stored potatoes, and lead to non-toxic treatment.
Chemist Richard A. Anderson and his colleagues at USDA's Nutrient Requirements and Functions Laboratory at Beltsville, Maryland, are investigating spices and other plants used in folk medicine. They found a few spices, especially cinnamon, make fat cells much more responsive to insulin, the hormone that regulates sugar metabolism and thus controls the blood glucose level. In test tube experiments, an active compound in cinnamon increased glucose metabolism about 20 fold. If this substance will do the same in people, it might provide a natural remedy against diabetes. These findings are important. Nearly 16 million Americans have diabetes. One third of them are unaware that they have the condition. Most have Type 2 diabetes (adult onset), in which the body cells fail to recognize and respond to insulin as well as they did formerly. This inability results in elevated blood sugar.
As more investigations go forth with spices, many benefits are being discovered.
Below are several questions pertaining to spices found in Beatrice Trum Hunter's "YOU ASKED FOR IT" column
Q. Are spicy foods harmful to the stomach?
A. Contrary to a popular notion, highly spiced foods do not cause gastric or duodenal mucosal injury. However, anyone who is already afflicted with a gastric ulcer should follow medical recommendations.
Q. Do spices have any nutritional value?
A. Spices may be low in nutritional value, but they have other beneficial qualities. Their aroma in food dishes can create appetite by stimulating the gastric secretions. Some spices aid digestion, improve blood circulation, enhance mental and physical stamina, adapt to stress, and have other positive features. For example, spices are useful in devising tasty dishes that are low in sugars, fats, sodium, and calories.
Q. Do hot sauces make raw shellfish, such as oysters, safer to eat?
A. Vibrio vulnificus is a common contaminant in raw oysters. In tests, hot sauces did not reduce significantly the overall numbers of this pathogen. Tabasco sauce (but not "cocktail sauce") reduced the number of pathogen on the surface of the oysters, but not within the interior of the oysters. Eating raw shellfish remains risky, especially for individuals with impaired immune systems.
Photo by Peter Beard
The author, Beatrice Trum Hunter, MA, has written more than 30 books on food and environmental issues, frequently before widespread public awareness. She was food editor of Consumer's Research Magazine for more than two decades. She is an honorary member of The Price Pottenger Nutrition Foundation, as well as an honorary fellow of The International Academy of Preventative Medicine and an honorary member of The American Academy of Environmental Medicine. She has been the recipient of many awards, including The Jonathan Forman Award of The Society for Clinical Ecology, The New Hampshire Society for Preventative Dentistry, and The Donnon Pepper Humanitarian Award. She can be reached at 243 Falls Road, Deering, N.H. 03244