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Low on Iron? Eat Spicy Food. (Or, The Nutritional Benefits of Spices)

Posted by Naomi Schoenfeld on

I think I've finally figured out why we in the United States may have such a hard time getting our daily nutrients from our food -- even from whole-food, well-balanced versions of the U.S. diet.

Our food is too bland.

Americans don't have much use for heavy spicing. We look to the major food groups to keep us nourished, and don't even think of spices as possible contributors. Often, we struggle to come up with reasons why other cultures use spices at all -- you've probably heard the suggestion that people started using spices to mask the taste of half-spoiled foods, in those primitive days before modern refrigeration. But today, the story goes? No more spoiled foods, so, no need for anything but occasional spicing for flavor.

But is it really that simple? Let's take a look at one example -- dietary iron.

Many American adults, especially women, struggle to get enough iron in their diet. I don't know about you, but me, no matter how carefully I choose my foods (raisins? kale? meat-based? vegetarian? spinach? spinach /and/ citrus?), I never seem to quite get there. And no wonder. Here is the top ten list of iron-rich foods according to WebMD:

(I can think of a couple of high-iron foods, such as quinoa, that for some reason didn't make WebMD's list -- but even so, they all pretty much fall in the same range.)

Time for some math. To reach your daily iron intake using these foods, you'd need to eat -- every single day -- 33 canned oysters, or 15 eggs plus 10 cups spinach, or 1.5 quarts of cooked lentils, or four 8-ounce steaks. And that would be before taking other nutrients into account. Add in a quart of milk for the remaining calcium, a healthy heap of whole grains, fruits, veggies, and seeds for other vitamins and minerals, and the sheer quantity of food quickly becomes ludicrous. No wonder we fall off the wagon.

So, we reach for supplementation. Iron in pill form is certainly useful, but surely it must be possible to eat in a way that would make supplementation unnecessary. While malnutrition can be a serious problem, it's typically found where people don't have adequate access to high-quality foods, not across the human species as a whole. In other words -- in any given society, the children of the poor are at greatest risk of malnutrition. The children of the rich, not so much. In other words, in the absence of food scarcity humans do manage to create nutritionally complete diets without modern supplementation. 

So where do spices come in?

Let's look at herbs and spices, using numbers from the USDA National Nutrient Database. Note we're talking tablespoons, instead of cups:

Do you see it?

One tablespoon of cumin has as much iron as four cups of spinach, and one tablespoon turmeric as much iron as a full cup of cooked lentils. Interesting. Here are some examples of how adding spices translates into actual nutrition:

  • 1 8oz steak, unspiced -- 22% iron, 0% calcium
  • 1 8oz steak, spiced with 2 tablespoons thyme herb crust -- 37% iron, 10% calcium
  • 2-egg omelet, plain -- 6% iron, 4% calcium
  • 2-egg omelet, spiced with 1/4 cup fresh herbs -- 17% iron, 9% calcium
  • 1 cup lentil soup, plain -- 17% iron, 2% calcium
  • 1 cup lentil soup, spiced with 1-1/2 tsp each cumin and celery seed -- 37% iron, 10% calcium

See what I mean? Forget food preservation as a rationale for historic herb use. Adding these things we call herbs and spices can have a major effect on nutrition, raising or even doubling the nutritional value of a dish.

Here's a more practical example of the ways our tendency to under-spice affects nutrition:

  • A basic chicken curry recipe from the Food Network (for six servings, 1 tablespoon curry powder, 2 teaspoons cumin, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and black pepper 'to taste'), pretty typical for western palates, provides 7% daily iron, 2% daily calcium per serving.
  • A curry recipe shared by an acquaintance from India, for same number of servings, calls for a whopping 4 tablespoons ginger, 4 tablespoons garlic paste, 3 tablespoons coriander powder, 2 teaspoons cumin, 1 teaspoon turmeric, 8 whole cloves, 8 whole cardamom pods, 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 1 teaspoon black pepper, and 1 cinnamon stick.

    (I'll share the full recipe soon, once I've had a chance to make it a few more times.)

    The result? More than double -- 15% daily iron, 5% daily calcium, for the same serving. And that's apart from the other health-building properties in that spice list. Go ahead and chow down on an extra serving. You'll get 30% total of your daily iron from the experience.

I don't know about you, but the food in my house is about to get a lot spicier.

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