The Spice of Life
Nilufer Hye Karim, Md. Asif Dad Khan
Spices- an item indispensable for Bangladeshi cuisine are consumed in our daily life to garnish and flavour our food. Spices have been used from the dawn of civilisation as a colouring, stimulating and flavouring agent. Today, spices are not only used in Asian and Middle Eastern dishes but are additives of special dishes in Western and American countries. So, what are the sources of spices?
By origin spices are dried parts of plant leaf, stem, bark, flower and seeds. To name a few plant part sources; ginger, turmeric, sarsaparilla, angelica, and asafetida obtained from rhizome; coriander, dill, fennel, pepper, cumin, chili, vanilla, anise, caraway from fruits; cinnamon and cassia obtained from bark; clove and saffron obtained from flowers; mustard, cardamom, fenugreek, nutmeg, joyphal from seeds; and basil, marjoram, coriander leaf, peppermint, Indian cassia and lemon grass are from leaves of plants. As they are parts of plant, one might wonder on what the benefits of spices are to human health and environment. Over the years spices have proven to:
-Add colour and flavour to food and makes it attractive and palatable
-Stimulates salivation and secrete acids of the digestive enzymes
-Have antibacterial, anti inflammatory, anti oxidant properties
-Contain medicinal active ingredients that endows specific health benefits
-Act as pesticide and repels insect and disease of plants
-Give flavours to perfumes, lotions, incense and herbal products
-Add medicinal properties to cosmetic and toiletries
Spices of Bangladesh
We often are enthralled when Bangladeshi food placed on the table because of the specific fragrance that signifies particular dishes. It is interesting to know that Bangladesh consumes 25 different spices, but grows only about 10 spices. Bangladesh produces about 4.25 lakh metric tons of spices in 2.53 lakh hectares of land (BARI publication, 2005) every year. No wonder our food is so spicy. The major spices used in Bangladeshi foods are chilli, coriander, cumin, garlic, ginger, onion and turmeric. These are used as table spoonfuls depending on the food item. The minor spices used as teaspoonful or pinches for flavour and taste are Asafoetida, basil leaf, black pepper, cardamom, clove, cinnamon, dill, fenugreek, mace, mustard, nutmeg, oregano, thyme, saffron and many more. Well, from time immemorial spices had not only been used as food flavours, but as wonders in preventing and curing many diseases.
An examination of the nutrition of spices shows that most are low in minerals, nutrients and vitamins and provides calorie in the range of about 300-400 K cal per 100 g servings. Spices do not have any cholesterol inducing agents. Some spices contain Vitamin A, B and C.
History shows the use of spices as medicine in ancient civilisations of the world. Many of the spices have active ingredients that impart therapeutic properties (details in Table 1 and 2). Such substances build resistance and remove bacterial, fungal and viral infections. There are at least 30 spices with incredible antibacterial properties. The anti inflammatory property of spices makes it an antibiotic. One will be amazed to know that many spices contain anti cancerous agents.
Onion, a most common spice in our daily lives is essential in cooking. Like garlic, onion has antibiotic properties and effective medicinal properties that prevents accumulation of fat and decreases the chance of heart diseases. Of the many properties, garlic is widely used in preparation of tablets to prevent blood clotting and blockages in the blood vessels that may lead to heart failure. Most recently garlic is used in the treatment of diabetes. Ginger, containing a substance known as 'gingerol' has multiple qualities. 'Curcumin', giving a yellow colour to the food and a constituent of turmeric that aids in digestion, is an antiseptic having anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. Chilli and thought to cause heartburn or ulcer is in fact used in treatment of ulcers. Coriander and cumin, the other two macro spices, eases gastro intestinal problems. The whole plant of coriander and cumin acts as tonics and strong food flavours. The spices needed in little quantities are no less wonders for health. Cinnamon sticks, the bark of cinnamon tree are effective in lowering cholesterol and prevents fatigue and fever. The therapeutic properties of a number of spices are given in Tables 1 and 2.
The medicinal properties are due to a combined effect of active ingredients and antioxidants present in spices. Spices are also used for boosting energy, aiding the digestive process. The Ayurveda medicine originated in India more than 3,000 years ago are prepared from herbs and spices and known as natural medicine.
Antioxidants are special compounds that protect against oxidation, or cellular damage caused by free radicals that cause cell damage and aging. The therapeutic effect is due to the presence of antioxidant that protects against hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, skin diseases and cancer. The antioxidants in spices also prevent rancidity in cereals, oilseed, etc. and improve their shelf life. The anti-oxidative contents along with medicinal ingredients had made spices historically important in human civilisation.
Preservative in spices
Due to the anti bacterial and anti microbial and antibiotic properties, spices are used in making pickles of fruits and vegetables. Spices like onion, garlic, cinnamon, cloves, thyme, mustard, etc. inhibit the food borne bacteria, yeast and fungi. Essential oil extracts of spices and herbs are found to contain antibacterial compounds such as alicin (from garlic), allyl isothiocyanate from mustard, eugenol from cloves, cinnamon and sage and thymol from oregano and many more. Some of these products are added to bakery items that not only inhibits molds but also add flavour and aroma to baked products. The active components in spices act synergistically to increase the preservative effect, such as with salt and citric acid.
Post-harvest crop protection is another area with potential for spicy solutions. Spices also protect fungal infection in stored grain. Use of bio-pesticide for food and grain preservation is now a potential field of study in the scientific arena.
It is evident that spices not only are important and essential ingredients of food but are part of human health and hygiene. Although global variability in kind and combination of spice use exists, it has proved to be an indispensable additive in many forms, so spices are the 'spice of life'.
Bangladesh, a bio-diverse agricultural country has potentials for increased production of spices with the introduction of high yielding varieties, use of unutilised land and planned mixed or alternate cropping. In the backdrop of existing demand of spices in the tune of 16 lakh metric tons, the potential market of spices even within the country is tremendous. With concerted efforts of extension workers and agriculture entrepreneurs, spices can not only contribute to the deficit as food flavours, but also as sources of medicinal ingredients in herbal medicine.
The writers are members of AgriBiotech Division, Rural Services Foundation (RSF), Dhaka.
(R) thedailystar.net 2008