(Health Secrets Newsletter) The five most highly prized spices in the world, each from a distinct family, feature both strong medicinal and important culinary uses. This article will summarize the history, benefits and constituents of five plants that have long been considered among the most precious natural products.
1. Saffron – Crocus sativus (Iridaceae).
The dried stigmas of a perennial crocus flower, saffron is the most expensive spice in the world by weight. Likely originating in Greece or Iran, saffron was cultivated by Egyptian physicians as early as 1600BC. Saffron contains a bitter volatile oil composed of terpenes and esters along with glycosides including the antioxidant crocin (a carotenoid responsible for the yellow color), and B vitamins. Saffron is often adulterated due to its extreme cost, as it requires about 160 of the purple colored crocus flowers to make 1 gram of dried product (the amount found in a typical jar). Although more affordable natural remedies exist, saffron improves digestion, cardiovascular health, skin clarity and circulation. Saffron can relieve insomnia and increase sexual vitality. Taken in extremely high doses, saffron can induce abortion. Saffron has anti-aging and anti-depressant properties.
2. Vanilla – Vanilla planifolia (Orchidaceae)
Grown in Mexico, Madagascar and the Indian tropics, vanilla is the second most expensive spice by weight. While V. planifolia is the main species, V. pompona is also cultivated and V. tahititensis (known as Tahitian vanilla) is considered a cross breed. An aphrodisiac, vanilla regulates blood pressure and menstruation. Vanilla treats erectile dysfunction, frigidity and loss of libido. Vanilla oil stimulates the production of hormones that normalize sexual behavior, including testosterone and estrogen. Vanilla is also a natural antidepressant (it is not simply eating ice cream that makes you feel good!). Vanilla has sedative, antioxidant and antitumor properties.
3. Cardamom – Elletaria cardamomum (Zingiberaceae)
The third most expensive spice in the world, and one of the oldest, cardamom is called the Queen of all spices. Cardamom contains many volatile oils including cineole, pinene, humulene, caryophyllene, carvone, eucalyptole, terpinene and sabinene. Long been regarded as a cure-all, cardamom can detoxify the liver, strengthen the immune system and calm the nerves. Used as a perfume in ancient Egypt and as both a spice and medicine since the 4th Century BC in Greece, cardamom is native to India and Sri Lanka and is exported mostly by Guatamala. Cardamom is used to fight kidney and stomach cancer, and also to treat digestive problems, asthma, and urinary tract infections. Cardamom seeds promote fresh breath. Cardamom has carminative, aromatic and antispasmodic properties.
4. Clove – Eugenia caryophyllus (Myrtaceae)
The fourth most expensive spice by weight and one of the earliest to be traded (circa AD 176 in Alexandria), cloves are the dried flower buds of the clove tree and are native to the Molucca Islands. Cloves contain the volatile oils eugenol, pineneand vanillin. A stimulant to both the mind (improving memory) and body, cloves have been used as an aphrodisiac, a sore throat spray, to relieve toothaches, induce labor, treat joint pain, reduce skin inflammation, and to treat stomach cancer. Clove has antibacterial, antiseptic, anaesthetic, and anti-inflammatoryproperties.
5. Cinnamon – Cinnamomum verum (Lauraceae)
The fifth most expensive spice and one of the first traded, cinnamon is the inner bark of an evergreen tree. Originating in India and Sri Lanka and used in Egypt as early as 500BC, cinnamon contains the powerful antioxidants cinnamaldehyde, cinnamyl acetate, and cinnamyl alcohol. Cinnamon also provides manganese, fiber, iron and calcium. Cinnamon promotes circulation to the extremities, stimulates digestion, treats cancer of the blood, reduces blood clots, boosts memory, fights arthritis, lowers cholesterol, treats diabetes and regulates blood sugar levels. A closely related but lower quality version is C. cassia used in Chinese medicine and cuisine. Cinnamon has sedative, antibacterial, and antiviral properties.
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