Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • Welcome to ZOE science and nutrition,  

  • where world-leading scientists, explain how  their research can improve your health.  

  • Kanchan Koya grew up in a house  filled with wonderful fragrances  

  • from the spices simmering  on her grandmother's stove.  

  • In India, it was a common belief that  spices were more than just pleasant tastes.  

  • Ancient wisdom said they had medicinal properties  and it was common for household medicine cabinets  

  • to store dried spices and not pills. Kanchan  grew up to become a molecular biologist  

  • studying in the US at Harvard medical school. When her lab began to investigate turmeric's  

  • healing properties, the ancient wisdom  from her childhood met the scientific  

  • inquiry of her adult life beginning a lifelong  obsession with the health benefits of spice.  

  • In today's show, she helps us understand whether  there is any scientific evidence to support the  

  • health benefits of spices. The easiest way to add  spice to our diet and which ones to choose. We're  

  • also joined by regular guest, Tim Spector, one of  the world's top 100 most cited scientists, and my  

  • scientific co-founder at ZOE to help understand  why spices might be improving our health.  

  • Kanchan and Tim, thank you for joining me today.  

  • Why don't we start with our usual quickfire  round of questions from our listeners and start  

  • with can Kanchan? Kanchan, are there spices  that I can eat to improve my health?  

  • Yes. Should I be giving spices to my children?  

  • Yes. Is there any  

  • evidence that spices can help with menopause?  

  • I am not sure. Brilliant. We'll come  

  • back to all of those a bit later. And  Tim can spice reduce inflammation.  

  • Yes. Do spices affect my gut microbiome?  

  • Yes, definitely. Can spices count towards my  

  • target of 30 plants a week? Yes, they absolutely can.  

  • All right. That's a lot more yeses than  normal, but I think everyone's like, wow,  

  • this stuff actually does something. And, let's  go and sort of dig into that all in a bit more  

  • detail. And maybe we could just start right at  the beginning Kanchan, what is a spice?  

  • Right. Fantastic question. So I'm actually going  to summarize from a research paper because I  

  • knew that question was gonna come up, in the  international journal of molecular sciences,  

  • which basically says that the leaf, rootbark, berry, bud, seed, and stigma of a  

  • plant or flower used for purposes of cooking are  commonly referred to as herbs and spices.  

  • So that's the formal, scientific  definition of an herb or a spice.  

  • Got it. And it sounds quite broad. So,  I think spinach is a leaf, isn't it? But  

  • I don't think my wife would accept that I was  adding spices if I added spinach to my meal.  

  • So I guess in day-to-day usage, is there  anything, that would identify, you know,  

  • when you are cooking, what defines that as... Maybe separating a herb and a spice?  

  • Yeah, definitely. So when I think of spices  versus herbs, I really do think of the root,  

  • the bark, the bud, the seed. And then  when you start talking about the leaves,  

  • I think more of herbs, either fresh or driedAnd so when you think of spices, the difference  

  • between them and other sort of plant foods that  we eat on a regular basis is really that they're  

  • often quite concentrated and traditionally  have been used to enhance the flavor of food.  

  • And of course, some ancient medical systems  also enhance the health properties of food.  

  • So that's kind of how I would think about spices  versus, you know, other foods that we eat.  

  • And somehow they always seem quite concentrated  when I think about spices, right? They're in a  

  • small little jar, as opposed to the quantities  of food I tend to eat for anything else to give  

  • me flavor. Is that universal across spices? Yes, they do tend to be concentrated and used in  

  • smaller amounts. And I think it's a really  good point because for a lot of people,  

  • that brings up the question, well, if they're  used in such small culinary amounts, how can  

  • they possibly really have benefits of meaningversus, eating a giant plate of sort of leafy  

  • greens or a huge plate of steam broccoli, you  do have to wonder would a sprinkling of this or  

  • that spice really make a difference? And I guess  that's what we're gonna talk about today.  

  • I think that is exactly the questionAnd maybe I'd love to do it a little bit  

  • through your own story because we talked  before this call about your own passion  

  • for spices and how it began. How have you  ended up with your whole focus on spice?  

  • Yeah. So I grew up in India for the first 18 years  of my life. As several listeners might know, India  

  • is obsessed with spice, the spice box, or the  Dabba, it's called in India, is really an integral  

  • part of every Indian household's kitchen. But it's  also an integral part of every Indian family sort  

  • of pharmacy and by pharmacy, I mean the F-A-R-M,  farmacy, natural medicinal foods that we eat,  

  • the ancient Indian medical system of Ayurveda  has really revered spices and really put a lot of  

  • weight on their potential health benefits. So I grew up with a lot of that ancient  

  • wisdom just sort of passed down by my  family, my grandma, that sort of thing.  

  • And then, to be honest, didn't think much  of it. In fact, I thought it was a bunch of  

  • maybe woo-woo. Not really valid. I was sort of  a scientist, I wanted to do serious science.  

  • So I came to the US to study. I found myself at Harvard medical  

  • school doing my Ph.D. in molecular cancer  biology, and my lab at the Dana-Farber Cancer  

  • Institute actually started to study various  polyphenols and plant-based compounds in a screen  

  • against breast cancer in vitro in cells. And one  of the compounds on the screen was curcumin.  

  • And I was collaborating on this project with  a postdoc and he said: "oh, look! You know,  

  • turmeric is one of the compounds in the screen  or curcumin, the bioactive from turmeric." And  

  • it was definitely a real aha moment  for me because I think I had sort of  

  • discounted or not really paid attention tolot of this wisdom that I grew up with.  

  • And here I was at a research institution  that was starting to look at some of these  

  • polyphenols found in spices and it just plantedseed for me that maybe there is something to these  

  • ancient components in food that is now being  validated by modern science and then fast forward  

  • to sort of when I became a mother. And started to  give my son spices in his baby food. And I had a  

  • lot of questions from my other mommy friends here  in New York City as to whether that was even legal  

  • or allowed. And it just got the wheels turning  in my mind about how maybe I could educate people  

  • about spices and really as a gateway into  this world of food for health and food for  

  • micronutrient enhancement. And that led to the  platform that is now a Spice Spice Baby.  

  • That's amazing. And so what do we know  about how spices affect our health?  

  • Right. That's the million-dollar question. So, you  know, for a long time, we had a lot of evidence,  

  • mostly in vitro, sometimes  dubious, not in the best journals,  

  • looking at the properties of these polyphenols  or phytochemicals found in spices.  

  • So these are individual compounds that  have been studied in different spices,  

  • and they're often looked at, for their properties  in a test tube on cells, and their antioxidant  

  • capacities, there was a growing body of evidence  that spices contained these compounds. These  

  • compounds seemed to have benefits in vitro, and  then there were small studies here and there.  

  • Not the best sort of done, not the largest sample  sizes, that were starting to show some benefits,  

  • like the ability to regulate blood sugar  in the case of cinnamon or, you know,  

  • some other anti-inflammatory spices, like  turmeric, their ability to block inflammation  

  • or at least reduce or regulate inflammation. And for a long time, I just told people. We  

  • have so much growing evidence in vitro that  these things can be helpful. There's really  

  • no downside to using them. We're waiting for  more human kind of control, randomized control  

  • data. So in the meanwhile, let's just enjoy them  because they make our food really delicious.  

  • And there's really no downside. And there  might be a health benefit, but I will say  

  • in the last few years, we have started to see  some better studies in humans that have given me  

  • a lot more sort of optimism about the true  benefit of these components in culinary  

  • amounts. So very often the studies in the past  looked at very concentrated doses of spices  

  • and things that would be hard to achieve in  culinary amounts. And now we have studies saying,  

  • you know, what, a teaspoon of a spice blend in  sort of a junky high fat high refined carbohydrate  

  • meal may actually be able to regulate inflammation  after that meal. And we can get into some of these  

  • studies, but I think now we're really starting to  see more evidence that in addition to the in vitro  

  • characteristics of these polyphenols, there might  actually be real benefits in culinary amounts.  

  • And Tim, you are normally the  first to be skeptical about a  

  • pervading view of food. So on spices? When you look at the studies in general,  

  • you do see lots of papers. You're getting  multiple papers from countries like Iran or  

  • Pakistan or places that aren't really high  up in the Western view of science that is  

  • looking after their own spices and perhaps paid  by the government to write these papers that are  

  • down 20 or 30 people that wouldn't normally meet  the quality you'd find in the top journals. So it  

  • is hard to assess these, they're often paid by the  manufacturers just like happens in other areas of  

  • food, like, you know, giant nut conglomerateset cetera, doing the same thing.  

  • So I think we do have to be skeptical about the  actual literature. But as Kanshan says, you know,  

  • we've got good theoretical reasons to believe itAnd what we do lack is really rigorous studies in  

  • large numbers of people. So we do need though,  a leap of faith to go from the fact that these  

  • spices and herbs are, are actually packed with the  things that we know are good for our bodies.  

  • From other experiments and take the few good  studies that we have got and, and extrapolate  

  • them. So we should maybe look at some of these  claims, some of the more extreme claims that  

  • you know, for example, you know, I took this  turmeric powder and was completely cured of cancer  

  • with a very large pinch of spices. But at the same time, realize that you know,  

  • these things might have a place in helping all  these things along. And that that's the middle  

  • ground between the extreme claims and they  don't work at all is, is where I think most  

  • food experts are seeing this. And luckily the  last few years, we have seen more rigorous studies  

  • in a few of these areas. And I think the fact that we can now  

  • start to measure things like the gut microbiome  effects gives us a way of looking, in short term  

  • at practical ways of doing these studies, rather  than waiting for people to do impossible studies,  

  • to do, you know, waiting to get cancer or heart  disease or whatever, and taking spices or not,  

  • which would take an impossible length of  time. So we are moving in that direction. And  

  • there are a few examples that I'm sure Kanchan and  I can come to discuss that we'll highlight.  

  • And I'll just add one thing, along the lines  of what Tim was saying, you know, I think  

  • many people look to spices or other  sort of superfoods, as these magic  

  • bullet solutions for health problems. And I think if you step back and look at the data  

  • from a sort of a larger lens, it really is about  certain dietary patterns. And I think this emerges  

  • for any healthy food. So it's not about, you knowoverloading on turmeric for inflammation control.  

  • It's about following a dietary pattern that we  know in an evidence-based way is gonna support  

  • healthy inflammation and then incorporating  a polyphenol-rich spice like turmeric.  

  • I really see that as the approach versus  the sort of like, what should I take  

  • every day in copious amounts to solve  my problem. And I think there's when the  

  • dubious claims really start to come in. So Kanchan, will you tell us a bit about the  

  • latest science, because it sounds like there  have been some really interesting papers  

  • just in the last few years that have really  lifted above what's been there in the past  

  • and I think it would be, without scaring  us away, with too much of the science,  

  • what has that actually been telling us? Yeah. So for a long time, we had a lot  

  • of evidence, as I was saying that spices  contain these anti-inflammatory compounds  

  • that seem to affect different players and  inflammation. So inflammation is a really  

  • complex kind of molecular symphony cascade and  the body with lots of different players.  

  • And the cool thing is. The different components  in different spices, at least in vitro seem to be  

  • hitting different components in inflammation. So  potentially having a synergistic effect, working  

  • together and a team at Penn state university just  last year actually said, Hey, since most people  

  • don't eat a single spice in isolation. Especially  in cultures that have traditionally used spices,  

  • they're often used as spice blends. And given  we know that different spices have different  

  • compounds that might work in concert. Why don't  we make a blend and test it in humans to see what  

  • it does to markers of inflammation? So this wasblend and this is, you know, to Tim's point about  

  • this kind of reductionist view versus a more  holistic view, the blend contained, I'm gonna  

  • list the spices really quickly, just to give you  a sense of how many spices were in the blend.  

  • They were obviously trying to create a research  study that was likely gonna give them some  

  • results. And so the blend had turmericginger, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, red pepper,