Curries are not only tasty, they are packed with medicinal benefits. JEREMY WRIGHT explains how the nation’s favourite cuisine can help ward off illness and actually boost your wellbeing
FANS of Indian food have always known there’s nothing like a good curry to fend off the winter blues. Now one pioneering chef has claimed to have invented a dish that can help cure seasonal colds too.
Gurpareet Bains, author, chef and nutritional therapist (www.indiansuperfood.com), says healthy volunteers who ate his fenugreek-based recipe twice a week between October and December remained cold-free, while those who already had the sniffles reported “immediate improvement”.
He adds: “Weight for weight, spices are the most antioxidant-rich foods on the planet. In other words, by adding a few more flavours to what you are already eating, you can boost its nutritional value.
“Unbeknown to a great many of us, spices are also the key ingredients contained in many over-the-counter medicines. Chilli is an essential ingredient in many rubs used for muscle and joint aches.
“Cloves are popular in soothing the pain common in dental emergencies. There are hundreds of medical studies that verify the use of spices to heal the body of virtually every ailment.”
While Bains recognises the need for clinical trials for his cold-busting fenugreek recipe, he is not alone in believing in the curative powers of a decent “Ruby Murray”.
Medics at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas agree. A report from its department of experimental therapeutics notes that, for instance, cancer rates in the Indian subcontinent are far lower than in the Western world.
The authors concluded: “Our review suggests that ‘adding spice to your life’ may serve as a healthy and delicious way to ward off cancer and other chronic diseases.”
So what are the key spices that can turn a Friday night treat into a health-preserving elixir and just what does science say about each one?
The leaves and small, stony seeds from a bean-like plant that grows in India, southern Europe and north Africa, fenugreek have been used to treat fever since the time of the ancient Egyptians.
It is also claimed that due to its oestrogen-like qualities it can treat symptoms of the menopause, improve libido and increase the flow of breast milk.
In India and China, fenugreek has been used to treat ailments ranging from arthritis to asthma and bronchitis.
The US government’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) says “a few small studies” have pointed to its use in lowering blood sugar levels and cholesterol, although it does not yet accept there is enough scientific evidence to support its use for other conditions. Because of fenugreek’s supposed ability to induce labour, some herbalists recommend it is avoided during pregnancy.
Experts at breastfeeding.com also warn that those with peanut or chickpea allergies should take care as there have been very rare cases of allergic reactions in susceptible people. Nursing mothers have been warned to be alert to risks including hypoglycaemia (excessively low blood sugar) if they exceed the recommended dose.
The seeds come from a small flowering plant of the parsley family. Cumin has been used for thousands of years to treat morning sickness and digestive disorders, is high in iron and believed by many to be effective against the common cold due to its supposed antiseptic qualities.
In south Asia, cumin tea is used to tell false labour, caused by trapped wind, from true labour.
In addition, a study by chemistry researchers from the universities of Lahore and Karachi, together with Turkish colleagues, found cumin was the most effective of a range of essential oils in inhibiting the growth of certain fungi.
We all know this pungent member of the onion family has been used for centuries to ward off everything from vampires and plagues to the common cold. There is also evidence to show that it can help control cholesterol.
Back in the 19th century, Louis Pasteur showed how garlic could kill bacteria under laboratory conditions and some research has shown that even deadly anthrax bacteria are sensitive to the plant. According to NCCAM, it may well lower blood pressure and slow the hardening of the arteries.
Claims that garlic can cure acne are, as yet, unproven.
Patients who are about to have surgery need to beware of the plant’s blood-thinning properties, while HIV patients are warned that it may interfere with their medication.
Recent research appears to confirm that this plant, normally added to food in the form of a bright orange spice, may very well contain a compound that is useful in the fight against cancer, the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis and even Alzheimer’s.
A team at Ireland’s Cork Cancer Research Centre found that gullet cancer cells in the lab started to digest themselves within 24 hours of being treated with curcumin, a key constituent of turmeric.
Dr Sharon McKenna, lead author of the 2009 study, said: “Scientists have known for a long time that natural compounds have the potential to treat faulty cells that become cancerous and we suspect that curcumin might have therapeutic value.”
Another study published in America’s Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry builds on previous work examining turmeric’s anti-arthritic properties. The effectiveness of the treatment on lab rats depended on the concentration of curcumin in the spice.
A separate study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience in 2009, found curcumin also slowed the progress of Alzheimer’s disease in mice.
While a chilli or two in your chicken jalfrezi might make you hot under the collar, the spicy little devils have been credited with a whole host of medical benefits, including as a pain reliever, an antibacterial and antifungal agent and a cure for conditions ranging from cancer and high blood pressure to asthma, arthritis, bronchitis and even a runny nose.
For example, the active ingredient capsaicin is already found in muscle strain and psoriasis treatments.
Chinese research has also found that it can cause blood vessels to relax and reduce blood pressure in rats. The results, published by the Chongqing Institute of Hypertension, have not yet been replicated in humans and some other studies have found that eating hot chillies may raise blood pressure, at least in the short term.
While the Chinese study team argued that eating chillies may be useful for those with high blood pressure, experts at the NHS Choices website advise: “Until more research is done, people with high blood pressure should not try substituting their medication with chillies.”
Meanwhile, other studies, such as one by The University of Nottingham in 2007, have found capsaicin can kill cancer cells by destroying the mitochondria, the part of the cell that gives it energy.
The key to the research is that the capsaicin only affects cancer cells as their biochemistry is different to that of normal cells. This means that the surrounding healthy tissue would be left unscathed by treatment.
Lead researcher Dr Timothy Bates said: “As these compounds attack the very heart of the cancer cells, we believe we have discovered a fundamental Achilles’ heel for all cancers.”
Traditionally root ginger has been used to treat ailments including nausea, stomach cramps, bloating travel sickness, fevers and colds.
It is believed to contain antivirals, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory substances, used for thousands of years in Chinese and Tibetan medicine to treat joint conditions such as arthritis and rheumatism.
Modern scientists, including a team at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, have identified ginger as among those curry spices that contain so-called phytochemicals, which may be useful in fighting more serious diseases such as asthma, diabetes, Crohn’s disease, Aids and, again, cancer.
Essential oil of ginger, tested by Thai researchers at King Mongkut’s University of Technology, Bangkok, found it was effective against a range of bugs, including a strain of listeria.
Traditional Iranian medicine has for centuries recommended the use of coriander for treating anxiety.
Scientists at the country’s Shiraz University of Medical Sciences who tested an extract of the plant under laboratory conditions confirmed its effectiveness and also reported it could be useful as a muscle relaxant and sedative.
Among those who pointed to potential anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antifungal properties are researchers at the Institute of Agricultural Sciences at Banaras Hindu University, India, and their counterparts at the University of Karachi in Pakistan.
The 2006 Karachi study pointed out the plant’s effectiveness against the food-poisoning bug salmonella.