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Spice up your health, cancer researcher advises Add to ...

A curry a day may help keep cancer away.

Bharat Aggarwal, a professor of experimental therapeutics at the University of Texas's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, began studying the cancer-fighting properties of curcumin - the active ingredient in turmeric - in the 1990s. Back then, he says, it was hard to get his colleagues to take him seriously; he recalls one oncologist politely shooed him out of his office when he tried to share his findings.

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These days, however,his is an expanding field of research.The scientific community is discovering the medicinal powers of not just turmeric, but all kinds of spices.

In his new book, Healing Spices: How to Use 50 Everyday and Exotic Spices to Boost Health and Beat Disease, Dr. Aggarwal draws upon scores of studies to show how various spices can help prevent or treat specific ailments.

Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, for example, discovered that people living in India had a 51 per cent lower risk of heart disease if they cooked with mustard seed oil compared with those who cooked with sunflower seed oil.

Japanese researchers found mint extracts can prevent the release of histamine, the chemical that causes allergic symptoms such as watery eyes and stuffy noses.

And scientists in Denmark found that eugenol, or oil of clove, is more effective as a blood thinner than aspirin.

Dr. Aggarwal explains to The Globe and Mail why we should literally spice up our lives.

Why do you think your colleagues were so skeptical of your research?

When there is any kind of disease, people think drugs are the only solution. Spices are the last thing they ever think about because - especially in the Western world - it is not a part of their lifestyle.

But spices have been used quite extensively in history. Now, we are actually providing scientific evidence that their medicinal value is indeed real and they can be used for a wide variety of diseases.

Why do we tend to get intimidated by spices?

Average Americans, when they buy spices, they buy a spice rack and they keep it in the kitchen and every two years they replace them. They replace them not because they use them up, but because they get old. People are very fond of spices, but they simply don't know how to use them.

How much spice do you actually need in order to get the health benefits?

Depression, lack of appetite, lack of sleep, fatigue - all these symptoms are from too much inflammation and we are trying to control that with spices. You really don't need a whole lot because once you start combining a bit of this, a bit of that - you take half a teaspoon or less than a half a teaspoon of each of them and put them all together - then it makes it a lot easier.

Most of these spices are not water soluble, so therefore the way to take them is to heat up a little bit of oil and put all those spices in there and let it simmer for a while. That is the best way to take it as compared to sprinkling it here and there.

Do spices lose their potential healing powers when they lose flavour?

That's correct. All these spices, they have volatile substances. So on one hand they have flavour, and on the other hand they have healing substances. When you don't store it properly, it doesn't taste quite the same, it doesn't feel quite the same, it loses all its freshness. That's why we recommend keeping it in a closed container and keeping it at a low temperature.

Recently in the United States, poison control centres were warning people against using nutmeg for its intoxicating effects. Is it possible to overdose on spices?

It depends. I have not come across too many cases. Nutmeg is good for anxiety, it is good for cardiovascular [health] for diarrhea, for memory loss and for wrinkles and so forth. But can you overdose it? I don't know. Maybe if people just take nothing but nutmeg. But I normally expect people to take a little bit of each instead of too much of one.

What spices do you regularly use?

The spices I use, virtually without exception, are coriander, cumin, fenugreek, ginger, black pepper, red chilies, turmeric and mango powder. They are all anti-inflammatory and all anti-oxidant.

And you know how it is; you eat food, and sometimes the same bland food, everyday. It gets very boring. These spices add dimension. And if you experiment, like me, every time, it makes a different flavour. To add a little sour taste you can use a little tamarind or pomegranate seeds or mango powder.

You mention that cinnamon has been shown to improve one's memory and ability to focus. Can chewing cinnamon-flavoured gum actually make you smarter?

There are a lot of things in cinnamon that play in your favour, so any way you can take it, it is only a positive thing.

Is there any scientific support for drinking ginger ale when we're sick?

I don't want to say anything bad about ginger ale, but my question is how much ginger is in ginger ale? Has it got anything to do with ginger at all? If I had a choice between ginger and ginger ale, I'd rather take ginger. I'm the kind of person who likes to make my own ginger ale, so I know exactly what I'm putting in there instead of buying it. Otherwise so many other things can get added, it can do more harm than good.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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