Author: Jeanne Viall
Date: December 20th 2006
Cape Argus (Cape Town): You know the story about black pepper staying in your system for eight years (or whatever version you’ve been told?) It’s a myth, and a particularly South African one, it turns out.
Dr Keith Scott, who has researched the medicinal properties of spices, says he’s only heard this in South Africa.
Scott, a medical doctor who has explored many healing traditions including acupuncture and Ayurveda, has made a thorough study of spices and found that there’s a lot to indicate that they’re very good for you, both therapeutically and to prevent disease.
He was surprised, he says, at the amount of good research he found to back up what many traditional forms of medicine have known for so long. Ayurvedic medicine from India, for example, uses spices extensively for maintaining health.
He’s gathered all the information into a very accessible book, Medicinal Seasonings - The Healing Power of Spices, which he has published himself.
Scott uses the broad definition of “spice” - “an aromatic substance used as a food flavouring”, which includes herbs and some foods like green tea, soy and citrus zest.
He writes only about those commonly used spices which show a degree of scientific evidence to back up claims for their preventive or curative properties. Spices, he says, contain a comprehensive array of important antioxidants, and the body needs a variety to neutralise all free radicals as different ones work in different parts of the body.
Scott emphasises that his book is about preventing disease and stimulating good health.
While many of the spices have been researched for treating ailments, using them for that reason needs supervision. Cinnamon, for instance, is now being used to help control blood sugar; and turmeric (curcumin) for cancer.
He writes under disease headings such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease - turmeric, rosemary, garlic and ginger are known to help prevent Alzheimer’s. There’s also a section on each spice and its health properties.
Spicing up your life will improve your health, but you need to have an intake of at least 6g a day - that’s a lot of spices.
Surprisingly, Scott himself doesn’t much like curry - although he does like chilli and wasabi, and the European spices (which are better known as herbs). His solution is to grind up a variety of spices and take them daily. To make it more palatable, he’s put them into capsule form. He’s used 22 spices which will give a person the best of both Western and Eastern spices in the right quantities and ratios.
The European spices, he believes, have been underestimated. “Perhaps the reason the Mediterranean diet is so beneficial is because of all the herbs they use. Oregano is one of the top antioxidants and an integral part of their cooking.”
Scott, who lives in Bergvliet, studied medicine at UCT and then worked in the UK for many years. There he learned acupuncture and homeopathy before moving to New Zealand, where he started teaching other doctors. Africa called and he moved to Botswana where he ran a bush practice for 15 years, dealing with a very different kind of patient.
He writes a very interesting chapter on the evolution of spices in our diet, tracing the way our diet has changed. With his interest in diet and lifestyle, he started reading up on anthropologist Richard Lee’s study on the hunter gatherer San people. “I started getting interested and things started ringing bells,” he says.
Bushmen, he discovered, ate a far greater variety of plant species than those in a typical Western diet some very tasty, others bitter and sour. It is often the harsher, sharper tasting plants or parts of the plants, like skins, that contain biologically active phytochemicals; it is these that provide a wide range of vital health benefits, he writes.
“We need the medicinal substances that can be found in certain plant species and we should eat them all of the time - not only when we become ill. These vital compounds can be found in a variety of plants that humans and animals have been eating for millennia, and the secret is that the most important of these are found in the culinary spices that some societies have incorporated into their recipes for thousands of years ”
After Botswana, Scott worked in emergency medicine for a year - “I like change,” he says - and then on a cruise ship for two years. “I had a lot of free time and started reading about spices. I realised there was a book to be written on the subject. The nice thing is there is so much research going on and still a great amount that can be done.”
Scott writes about commonly used culinary spices and herbs; those used exclusively for medicinal purposes have been excluded.
I’m surprised that chilli isn’t in the book. Scott says he excluded those that may have irritant properties, and there was surprisingly little research on chilli. “But now chilli is topical and new research shows its value for prostate cancer.”
Scott says since taking the spices himself he’s observed many benefits: his energy levels are up; his short-term memory has improved and he has better judgment when driving.
Medicinal Seasonings (Medspice Press) is a detailed book with interesting historical and scientific reasons why spices are good for you.
“My intention is to provide useful information for those looking to protect themselves against the degenerative diseases, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s and slow the ageing process,” he says.
So forget stories of black pepper being bad for you and add spice liberally to your food. There are many healthy reasons to do so.
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