Used to flavor and preserve for thousands of years, spices and herbs also have recognized medicinal and health applications. Herbs come from a plant's leafy parts – like cilantro, oregano, thyme, or rosemary – while spices come from bark, berries, flowers, seeds, and roots, including such flavorings as cinnamon, cloves, allspice, cumin, and ginger. Chemistry and pharmacology research has provided a greater understanding of their health benefits, including studies that document how certain herbs and spices stimulate digestion, counteract plaque buildup in the bloodstream, regulate blood sugars, decrease the incidence of gallstones, provide antioxidants, reduce inflammation, suppress tumor development and even prevent some cancers. As such, the nutraceutical industry has taken note, touting some for their beneficial physiological and therapeutic effects.
A Brief and Flavorful World History
Humanity evolved along with flowering plants, many of which we use today for flavoring our food. Spices and herbs have been used for medicine, mask unpleasant tastes or smells, and keep food fresh for millennia. Yet ancient civilizations did not distinguish between those spices and herbs ingested for flavor and those used to maintain good health.
From around the 17th century BCE, spices were used widely for seasoning, burial rituals, medicines, religious purposes, and trade. Ancient Hebrew sacred texts mention cinnamon and saffron.
Ancient Egyptian medical texts cite treatments using poppies, peppermint, onion, mint, fennel, garlic, coriander, and caraway, while cardamom and cinnamon were sourced from Ethiopia to flavor food. Pyramid workers were believed to eat garlic and onion to promote stamina and health.
Chinese literature about spices dates back to the 28th century BCE, with the mention of cassia, a cousin to cinnamon. Chinese courtiers kept cloves in their mouths to keep their breath sweet when meeting the emperor. At the same time, potted ginger plants were brought on long sea voyages to provide fresh food and prevent scurvy.
Cuneiform records from between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers mention fragrant plants from circa 3000 BCE. Sumerian clay tablets from that period mention thyme, while a Babylonian king from the 700s BCE cultivated numerous spices and herbs. Assyrian records from the next century list aromatic plants, including anise, cardamom, coriander, cumin, dill, garlic, myrrh, poppy, sesame, and turmeric.
Garlic, onions, and shallots were popular in the 500s BCE in Persia, and essential oils were made from coriander, lilies, roses, and saffron.
Black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, and turmeric were used for thousands of years in Indian cuisine and for medical purposes. In the 4th century BCE, an ancient surgeon used white mustard to ward off evil spirits and an antiseptic poultice made from sesame. Later medical writings mention these spices in addition to ginger, cumin, mustard seed, and betel-nut leaves for their health benefits.
Imported cassia, cinnamon, pepper, and ginger found their way to the Mediterranean from the East, while other neighboring peoples also traded spices like caraway, mint, poppy, fennel, and coriander. Coriander, cinnamon, marjoram, saffron, and thyme are all mentioned as ingredients in herbal remedies in ancient Greek medical books, written between 100-200 BCE, summarizing their knowledge of over 600 spices and herbs.
Romans used spices and herbs freely, mixing spices into wine and making scented balms and oils for use after bathing, as well as for healing plasters and poultices. The Romans additionally were introduced by the Goths, Huns, and Vandals to caraway, onions, rosemary, and thyme.
Trade routes that crossed the Arabian desert brought cassia, cinnamon, and other spices, with merchants keeping their source secret to maintain high prices. The founder of Islam, Mohammed, co-owned a shop selling frankincense, myrrh, and other spices, while Muslims later distilled essential oils from aromatic plants to make extracts and syrups.
Early Middle Ages
Emperor Charlemagne instructed farmers to plant local herbs, including anise, coriander, fennel, fenugreek, parsley, sage, and thyme. During this era, the church largely regulated spice and herb cultivation, while feasts involving spices and herbs were common.
Before the Crusades, Asian spices in Europe were expensive and used almost exclusively by the wealthy. People commonly used spices for trading, with Eastern Europeans paying ten pounds of pepper to trade in London. Peppercorns could be used to pay taxes, tolls, and rents throughout Europe, and even dowries could be paid in pepper. After the Crusades and during the Age of Exploration, spices started to become more widely available.
The civilizations of what is now Mexico and Central America introduced allspice and red pepper to Spanish cuisine, while vanilla also came via the Aztecs. These American civilizations also had texts documenting how to treat various illnesses with spices and herbs.
Functional Foods: Using Spices and Herbs for Health
Many spices and herbs fall under the category of functional foods, as they add additional health benefits beyond their nutritional value. Many of these have been used in traditional medicines for hundreds or thousands of years.
Benefits of Various Spices & Herbs
Often spices and herbs are reduced to a powder by industrial spice grinders, with the powder put into capsules to make them easier to absorb. A study published in 2017 by the International Journal of Research and Review looks at the medicinal benefits of various spices and herbs. These include:
- Basil inhibits the growth of various bacteria, molds, and yeast, while also boosting immune system function, reducing blood sugars before and after meals, decreasing inflammation, treating anxiety-related issues, and relieving depression.
- Black pepper is used in Eastern and Western cuisine, possessing antioxidant and antibacterial properties, helping with digestion and breaking down fat cells to assist with weight loss.
- Chili peppers contain a substance called capsaicin, which manages pain from arthritis, diabetic neuropathy, herpes, mastectomies, and headaches, and assists with weight management and acts as an antioxidant to prevent skin cancers.
- Cinnamon bark and leaves produce oils that have antidiarrheal, antimicrobial, and antioxidant properties, while recent research indicates it may also promote good heart health.
- Coriander has long been used as a medicine to treat diabetes as its seed has been used to lower bad cholesterol in the bloodstream.
- Dill leaves have been used in Indian traditional medicine to treat headaches, jaundice, stomach problems, loss of appetite, boils, headaches, nausea, liver issues, and other health problems.
- Dill seeds have antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.
- Fenugreek contains a protein called 4-hydroxyisoleucine that assists with insulin functioning and can lower blood sugars, especially in people with diabetes.
- Garlic enhances physical and mental health while also containing antioxidants that lower cholesterol and blood pressure, boost the immune system, prevent cerebral decline, and act as an anti-clotting agent.
- Ginger has been used worldwide since ancient times for ailments that include arthritis, rheumatism, muscle aches, sore throats, menstrual cramps, constipation, indigestion, dementia, vomiting and fever, while also boosting immunity and reducing inflammation.
- Lemongrass has been used in traditional elixirs to treat coughs, colds, and nasal congestion, while also acting as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-carcinogenic.
- Marjoram leaves are distilled into an aromatic essential oil that has antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.
- Oregano leaves have antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.
- Parsley helps regulate cell growth while also containing a variety of antioxidants.
- Rosemary contains an acid that can suppress allergic responses, clear up nasal congestion and inhibit bone resorption while also acting as an anticarcinogen and anti-inflammatory.
- Thyme can be made into an essential oil containing a range of compounds, which have antiseptic, antifungal, and antioxidant properties while also being used to inhibit bone resorption and treat coughs.
Naturally low in calories and free of fats, sugars and sodium, spices and herbs increase flavor while helping counteract effects from foods that negatively affect nutrition.
How the Pandemic Helped Flavor Food
US spice company McCormick noted an uptick in sales for spices and herbs through the latter half of 2020 and into 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Not only did people cook more at home, but people became more adventurous with flavoring. People also saw it as a creative outlet to reduce stress, while many also consider home-cooked meals healthier. In May 2021, McCormick conducted a consumer survey that found 68 percent cooked more than before the pandemic, while 78 percent stated that they would maintain or increase their home cooking. The study also noted that 70 percent of those surveyed added spices, seasoning, or condiments to take out or delivered food from restaurants.
Processing with Commercial Spice Grinders
Though whole dried spices have a longer shelf life, ground dried spices are easier to store. As their flavor comes from the essential oils within the spices evaporating and oxidizing when exposed to air, grinding will increase how quickly they break down. Traditionally, spices and herbs were ground by hand using a mortar and pestle. Still, due to high demand today throughout the world, industrial spice grinders are now a requisite part of commercial spice processing.
Using Hammermills for Grinding Spices
Because of their ability to control particle size and operational flexibility, hammermills are the best tool for processing most spices. The exceptions are nutmeg, mace, and other spices with high oil content. However, hammermills can even process these when cryogenically frozen. When using hammermills as industrial spice grinders, reducing the particles to specific and uniform sizes is important. This is particularly true for the nutraceutical industry, which requires sufficient particle reduction to allow for encapsulation. Appropriate mesh size for various spices and herbs reduced via hammermills:
- 30 Mesh: cardamom, chili pepper, coriander seed, cumin seed, dill seed, paprika
- 40 Mesh: allspice, anise seed, anise star, caraway seed, cayenne pepper, celery seed, cloves, fennel seed, fenugreek, ginger, rosemary leaves, thyme leaves
- 60 Mesh: basil leaves, bay leaves, cilantro leaves, cinnamon, marjoram leaves, mustard seed, oregano leaves, parsley powder, pepper (white), sage, savory leaves, turmeric root
As hammermills crush rather than press, they reduce spices and herbs to the desired size without heating them significantly, which can cause discoloration and loss of fragrance. This is why they are now a requisite part of commercial spice processing.
Prater Industries Industrial Spice Grinders
Companies in the spice industry look to Prater Industries for our expertise in sizing material. In particular, Prater's Mega Mill Hammer Mill offers considerable benefits for companies who wish to grind spices and herbs commercially. Its robust structure and accessible design allow the Mega Mill to run 24/7, processing thousands of pounds per hour while permitting full access for maintenance or screen changes when switching between products. Used as an industrial spice grinder, Prater's Mega Mill also helps increase throughput capacity without increasing heat, offers low power requirements, and requires minimal maintenance, while the machine's arrangement of shafts and bearings permits it to run more quietly and smoothly.