No need to be stingy with spices. Research from Penn State finds heavily spiced meals — think chicken curry with lots of turmeric, or desserts rich in cinnamon and cloves — may do the heart good.
"Elevated triglycerides are a risk factor for heart disease," explains researcher Sheila West.
Her study found that a spicy meal helps cut levels of triglycerides, a type of fat, in the blood — even when the meal is rich in oily sauces and high in fat.
In fact, she documented a decrease of triglycerides by about one-third. This compares with people who ate the same meal, but prepared without spices.
"It was surprising," West told us. "I didn't expect such a large decrease."
It's good news for those of us who love a rich curry made with lots of turmeric or bold amounts of garlic and oregano. During the study, they used a blend that included these spices, as well as paprika, rosemary and ginger.
West intends to continue with this line of research, and later this month will present the results of a second study that replicated these triglyceride findings. Next step: determine which of these spices — at what levels — may be most beneficial.
"To me, the biggest advantage [found in the study] is the lowering of triglycerides and the insulin levels [which dropped about 20 percent]," explains cardiologist Ravi Dave of he University of California, Los Angeles who has reviewed West's spice research study. He explains that keeping these levels low can lower the risk of metabolic syndrome — as well as diabetes and heart disease.
It's not clear whether these benefits of highly spiced meals lead to long-term reductions in the risk of disease. Dave says that as traditional healing methods, many of which come from Ayurvedic medicine, are evaluated using modern, scientific methods, more research is needed to nail down potential therapeutic effects
"What we have is more emerging data on the benefits of spice, so I'm excited," Dave says.
For now, Dave recommends traditional Indian spices — which he and his family use at home — such as turmeric, cumin and coriander, to jazz up food.
In the future, it's possible that spices will play an elevated role in medicine, with specific recommendations for preventing disease.
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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.
Today in "Your Health," dropping pounds when you're overweight may be contagious to those around you. We'll hear the evidence in a moment. First, spicy foods may be good for your heart. New studies are showing some spices, like those used in dishes from the Indian subcontinent, can cut the risk of diabetes and heart disease. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: If you think that just a little dash of the traditional Indian spice turmeric can go a long way, as I once did, you've likely never had it prepared for you in the way Poonam Dhingra learned from her mother.
POONAM DHINGRA: Let me tell you something. You have to really use a lot of turmeric. And I think it's very healthy. That's what it is.
AUBREY: Even at breakfast, when she'd add it to a chickpea dish, or use it to prepare a turmeric milk - which she's making now.
How many teaspoons do you think are here in this little dish?
DHINGRA: Oh, I would say about five.
AUBREY: So Indians are not afraid to use turmeric.
DHINGRA: Oh, definitely not, definitely not. This is like a second nature to us.
AUBREY: Dhingra owns an Indian restaurant called Mehak, just around the corner from NPR. And when she invited me to try this milk, I was curious.
DHINGRA: I'm going to put some sugar, and you just mix it well. And make sure the milk is warm, and stir it - and drink it.
AUBREY: Dhingra says her mother would make this milk when she was sick or had a cut. In her house, this was considered medicine.
Does this bring back a taste of childhood?
DHINGRA: Yeah, it's - yeah, definitely, definitely.
AUBREY: And when I take a sip of this warm turmeric milk?
DHINGRA: It's a lot of - pungent.
AUBREY: Very pungent. You know, I was afraid to take so much of it. I thought it would be really strong. But it...
DHINGRA: With the sugar, it actually - or honey, if you have the honey...
AUBREY: Yeah, I'm really shocked. I thought that this would be really overwhelming. And instead, it's just sort of a nice sort of aromatic milk.
DHINGRA: Yes, definitely.
AUBREY: What I notice, as the residue of milk paints my mouth, is a sort of subtle, tingling sensation. What Dhingra experiences is a taste of health.
DHINGRA: And I think our parents - or our ancestors definitely knew about it, that - what came good of it.
AUBREY: So how does this super-spiced turmeric drink fit with what researchers are learning about the health benefits of spices? Well, turns out the amount of spice may be significant. When Dhingra showed us how easy it is to use two teaspoons of spice, this is how much researchers used in a recent study to evaluate turmeric and a blend of other spices' effect on the cardiovascular system. Sheila West, of Penn State, is the author.
SHEILA WEST: Spices are of great interest to consumers, and a lot of claims are made about their health-enhancing effects.
AUBREY: But West says the rigorous trials doctors rely upon to nail down the evidence are just starting to happen. For her study, she recruited a bunch of people who agreed to eat several specially prepared meals, and then have their blood drawn so researchers could analyze cholesterol, triglycerides and insulin counts.
WEST: We created a meal that had three different components to it.
AUBREY: On the first night, the volunteers dined on a fairly high-fat chicken entree served with bread and a dessert biscuit, all of which was prepared with no spice at all.
WEST: It was palatable, but it was a bit bland.
AUBREY: On the next occasion, the same diners ate the same meal, except this time all three dishes were prepared with lots of spices - a blend that included turmeric, cloves, ginger, rosemary and cinnamon. And West says what she found came as a big surprise.
WEST: Elevated triglycerides are a risk factor for heart disease. And what we've showed is that when you had the spices included in the high-fat meal, the triglyceride response was reduced by about a third. And it was surprising in magnitude, that's for sure. I guess I just didn't expect such a large decrease.
AUBREY: When cardiologist Ravi Dave, of UCLA Medical School, looked at West's findings he, too, was impressed. He points out the researchers also found a significant effect on insulin response, with levels decreasing about 20 percent.
RAVI DAVE: To me, the biggest advantage is that lowering triglycerides and the insulin levels also lowers the risk of metabolic syndrome, which is a precursor to diabetes and a significant risk factor for heart disease.
AUBREY: Dave says it's not clear whether these benefits of highly spiced meals lead to a long-term effect. He says as traditional healing methods are evaluated using modern scientific methods, more research is needed to nail down which blend of spices, at what levels, may be therapeutic.
DAVE: What we have is more emerging data on the benefits of spices. So I'm really excited.
AUBREY: The challenge, Dave says, may be to get more Americans habituated to a little more kick in their curry.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.