Almost everything with a strong taste or smell, or a strong colour, contains biologically very active substances. Mostly they are either very healthy, or they are poisonous - or both. What is poisonous in large amounts can be beneficial in a small dose.
To utilise the medical properties of spices to their full extent, they are to be used unheated. Generally it is better to spice food at the table, not while cooking. Many spices can also be taken as powder in beverages. In some instances the active substances are best assimilated if taken with some fat.
A few spices ought to be avoided totally, most notably caraway (Carum carvi), but most common ones can be used daily, as a dietary supplement. They contain many known and possibly some unknown substances and are clearly beneficial for the health. Many spices are useful as medicine and have been used as such within the Ayurvedic tradition for thousands of years.
Names of spices are confusing, to say the least. Many unrelated spices have been or are called pepper, and depending on where in the world you are, things like cumin, coriander, cinnamon, or even celery may name totally different things than what you are used to at home. It is impossible for me to include all such diverse information without making the texts utterly confusing. That's why the Latin names are important. If you want to find the name of a spice in your local language, the safest way to get it right is to start with the Latin term and search for a relevant translation. Then you can be 100% sure to get the right spice.
I have previously written about turmeric and ginger, this time we will look at cumin, anise, star anise, and fennel.
Cumin is a name that can denote different seeds, used for flavouring or in medicine.
Cuminum cymium - related to carrot - was already in use during Antiquity. Seeds have been found in Egyptian tombs.
In Greek medicine, it was used against fever, and ailments of liver or lungs. Later it has been used mainly to stimulate digestion or increase menstruation.
Now it is widely used as a spice, mainly in bread, cheese and some alcoholic beverages.
Carum carvi - Caraway, or Persian cumin, is another "cumin", in some places replacing Cuminum cymium as a spice - mainly in bread and cheese. Carum carvi contains a special liver toxin, which might harm the liver if consumption is large or very regular. It should not be used regularly or in too large amounts.
Black Cumin - Nigella sativa, sometimes called "hell seeds" - is sometimes used in bread, but has also been used medically for thousands of years. It has proved to stimulate immunity, normalise blood pressure, and stimulate bile secretion.
Sweet cumin - Pimpinella anisum, commonly called Anise. (See next section.)
There are two spices, one has its origin in Egypt or the area around, the other in China. They share a substance giving a characteristic smell and taste, which also has medical effects. It is a phytoestrogen, a hormone-like compound. Although botanically unrelated, these two spices are called the same thing, except that to the Chinese variant there is added a celestial reference.
The Chinese variety also contains another substance strongly coveted by the medical drug industry. Even though this compound can now be made artificially, most of the industrial need is still filled by the natural source.
I'm talking about anise (Pimpinella anisum) and star anise (Illicium anisatum). Both contain anethole, a phytoestrogen also occurring in fennel. That is what gives them their specific flavour and aroma.
In medicine anise is or has been used for coughs, against flatulence, to stimulate digestion, for menstrual problems - and in Egypt as tea to increase the milk production of mothers. As a spice it is mainly used for confectioneries, bread, and in a large number of alcoholic beverages.
There is a peculiar word in English, louche, meaning sordid, of dubious morals. Originally it stems from Latin luscus, blind on one eye. Louche is also "The ouzo effect", which is that ouzo and some other beverages containing anise are getting cloudy, or "milky", when water is added to them. The reason? Presence of anethole.
Star anise, in Chinese 八角, bājiǎo [eight horn], has similar uses as a spice, and in traditional Chinese medicine it is used against cold stagnation in the middle jiao. But star anise does not only contain anethole, there is another compound, shikimic acid, which is strongly anti-microbial. It is also a pain-killer and an antioxidant. This substance is the major ingredient of the medicine Tamiflu, which is antiviral and got much publicity in connection with the swine flu some years ago. It's a neuraminidase inhibitor. Roughly it prevents replication of the virus by stopping its ability to budding (A form of asexual reproduction).
Shikimic acid is found in many organisms, mostly in a very low concentration. Star anise is the industrial source of it.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a perennial herb with strongly flavoured leaves and fruit (seeds), and in some cultivated varieties also an inflated leaf base, a bulb. Its taste resembles that of anise. It is caused by anethole, which is found also in anise and star anise.
The word fennel ultimately stems from Latin foeniculum. An interesting fact is that the Greeks called it marathon. The place for the famous battle was a field where fennel grew – that's what the name implies.
Due to its content of anethole, fennel has many medical properties it shares with anise (see above). In addition to that, roots and seeds have been associated with the eyes, and is said to improve eye-sight.
The fact that fennel is a source of phytoestrogens, compounds imitating female sex hormones, makes me hesitate to use or recommend it. At least for males, the wisest course might be to refrain from regular consumption.
(This article is based on material previously published in TMA/Meriondho Leo and in my e-book “Spices & Herbs”, 2018.)
Related article: The King & Queen of Spices: Turmeric & Ginger
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