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Spice Up Your Life! Chinese Spices and Your Health

China famous for not only its tea, but also its food. CHI takes a look at how spices can be good for your health


If China is famous for one thing around the world, it is food, and if there is one thing that is regarded above all others by Chinese people, it is the food that you grew up eating.

To the uninitiated (read: someone who has only eaten western-style Chinese take-out or the microwave dinner disgraces available in most grocery store freezer aisles), Chinese food may may seem an oily, sauce-covered concoction of vegetables and mystery meat served with a side of fried rice, but looking a little closer at the real food of the most populous nation in the world, it quickly becomes clear that Chinese food is very regional, very seasonal, very fresh, and very, very flavorful.

All this taste comes from a rack of spices that are used liberally and in sometimes surprising and unusual combinations to create sweet, sour, bitter, spicy (sometimes mind-blowingly so) and even numbing flavors. What’s more, after 5,000 years of cooking dinner, the Chinese have even found ways to include herbal medicinal treatments into their food. Best of all, because they don't contain fat or calories, there is no downside to enjoying spices so long as you don't have a food allergy. So eat up, because there are a whole host of potential health benefits to enjoying Chinese foods they way they are meant to be eaten.

Garlic is one of the most common spices in the world and the same is the case in China. Garlic is used in soups, stir-frys and baked dishes; it is pickled and even eaten raw. Along with all the members of the allium family of edible plants, including chives, onions, leeks and shallots, garlic contains allicin, an antioxidant which is proven to have both antibacterial and anti-fungal properties that can help your body to ward off unwanted antibodies; this is why garlic is credited with boosting immunity and even “cleansing” your system. Other benefits of garlic include reducing the build-up of bad cholesterol in your organs, increasing circulation, and even preventing the growth of harmful bacteria in the accompanying components of a dish. Garlic can essentially act as a natural preservative. About the only drawback to eating garlic is the odor, so unless you are on a date and worried about bad breath, feel free to eat up.

Ginger is also a major player in Chinese dishes, and has been proven to reduce nausea and motion sickness. For centuries ginger has been prescribed in traditional Chinese medicine to treat sore muscles and joints and relieve arthritis.

If you like your eating experience spicy, you will be happy to hear that chili peppers are good for more than just a flavor kick start. Spicy food can make the body sweat, and that’s a great way to open pores and release toxins. Chili also contains massive doses of vitamins C (more even than oranges), B-6, and A, along with plenty of the minerals you need on a regular basis, which means that chili helps prevents illness and even boost metabolism and digestion. Eating chillies ensures that you won't get scurvy next time you set to sea, and you’re also less likely to get a cold. Plus, chillies can lead to more regular bowel movements for sufferers of occasional constipation. Just don't overdo it on the hot stuff - your body can only handle so much capsican, and you don’t want a nice meal to end with a hurried excursion to the restroom.

Cinnamon is actually very common in Chinese cuisine, just not where you might expect it. Sticky buns are not a part of the traditional list of Chinese recipes, which is a shame since they are undeniably the greatest thing to ever happen to cinnamon. However, you will often find cinnamon sticks floating in soups; the flavor from this spice will not be particularly strong, but you still get the benefits of its natural oils. Cinnamon increases insulin production, which helps reduce the likelihood of diabetes, and aids in weight loss by balancing blood sugar levels and reducing cravings for sweet foods. Cinnamon also contains antibacterial compounds that can boost your immune system; plus, the antioxidant polyphenols found in cinnamon are linked to a reduced risk of cancers such as lymphoma and leukemia, and lower overall cholesterol.

You probably think of Thai, Malay, or Indian food when you think of curry, but in fact this spice is common throughout China. The active ingredient in curry that gives it its color and flavor is turmeric.Out of all the foods in the world, turmeric is the most abundant in curcumin; a well studied, natural anti-inflammatory agent that helps to prevent cancers and rid the body of free radicals, also known as the dreaded oxidants. Free radicals are organic atomic particles that drift around in your body looking for a cell to attach to, metabolize and eventually kill. Free radicals are thought to be the primary contributor to aging, since they reduce the chromosomal integrity of cells and thus cause them to replace themselves with gradually more and more inferior versions of themselves. Thus, the less these free radicals are able to attach themselves to your cells, the better. Curcumin also helps your brain stay healthy, since it possesses anti-amyloidal properties and helps you shed the plaque-like amyloid proteins that can build up inside your brain; these are the proteins linked to Alzheimer's disease, rheumatoid arthritis and other degenerative conditions.

Lots of other spices in Chinese foods are proven or believed to have medicinal properties as well, such as star anise, fennel and cloves, all of which aid in digestion and promoting a good mood in general. (When you feel comfortably full then you tend to feel happy and content, right?)

The only warning that needs to be made with regard to spices in Chinese cuisine, and all foods for that matter, is to avoid a high intake of salts, fats, sugars and hydrogenated oil. Otherwise, next time you feel like Chinese for dinner, order something new and see if the spices you taste are potentially making you healthier.