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Spice up your life: The five key ingredients for wellness this winter

Food with a kick could help keep you feeling on top form this time of year, says Liz Connor

Great taste: fresh spices contain health benefits
Great taste: fresh spices contain health benefits

If your kitchen spice rack is shamefully gathering dust, or only gets utilised when you're whipping up a homemade curry, it's definitely time to step up your seasoning game beyond plain old salt and pepper.

Besides adding some warmth to your winter cooking, fresh spices pack some pretty impressive health benefits - from reducing inflammation to helping the immune system fight back against pesky seasonal bugs.

"Spices, by definition, are the aromatic part of a plant - whether that's a root, bark, flower or seed," explains Rob Hobson, head of nutrition at Healthspan (healthspan.com).

"As we're approaching the time of year when we're exposed to annoying bugs that can leave us feeling run down, having a few key staple [spices on hand] could help you to keep well this winter," says Hobson.

What's more, they're relatively cheap, last for ages and you probably have most of them stashed in your cupboard already. Here are five to begin slotting into your diet now.

1. Curry powder

This blend of spices tends to contain a mixture of ground cumin, ground coriander, ground ginger, chilli powder, fenugreek, turmeric and black pepper, and has a deep, earthy flavour.

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"Incorporating curry powder into your meals means you'll be harnessing a multitude of benefits at once," says Hobson. "Many of these spices act as anti-inflammatories," he explains, which is important considering chronic inflammation has been linked to several diseases and conditions, including some cancers and rheumatoid arthritis.

"A lot of research has been conducted around fenugreek in particular," Hobson adds. Studies have linked this healing herb to increased testosterone levels in men, noted its potential to aid weight loss and provide pain relief.

How to eat more: Why not combine leftover roast chicken with yogurt and curry powder and use as a sandwich filling or salad ingredient? Curry powder is also a key ingredient in kedgeree - the British breakfast dish made using curried rice, smoked fish, boiled eggs, parsley and lemon juice.

2. Ginger

Most people don't realise ginger is a flowering plant with pretty red blooms, as we're familiar with buying its knobbly root, which is harvested from the base of the leafy plant.

"Ginger is very pungent and has aromatic citrus notes, with a peppery flavour, which is also reflected in its powdered spice form too," says Hobson. "This root has been shown to have strong anti-inflammatory properties, which are a result of the active compounds called 'gingerols'." Studies have found this compound can help reduce pain in patients with osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, as it can inhibit the formation of free radicals in the body.

As an added bonus? "Traditionally ginger is commonly used to treat nausea, so it could be a good option during the festive season to settle delicate 'morning after' tummies," says Hobson.

How to eat more: Try combining ground ginger and fresh lemon with boiling water as a naturally sweet alternative to breakfast tea with refined sugar. It also works well in homemade baked goods and you can add it to post-workout smoothies for a fiery kick too.

3. Turmeric

Turmeric has well and truly hit a note with millennials - scroll through any Instagram feed and you'll likely spot a few riffs on the trend, from turmeric lattes to golden soup.

This potent plant hails from the ginger family and grows in south-east Asia, and while you can sometimes find the whole roots, it's most commonly bought as a colourful ground spice.

"Turmeric has been shown to contain a compound called curcumin that acts as a powerful anti-inflammatory in the body, and research has pointed out its pain relieving properties," notes Hobson. In fact, studies have found that curcumin may be just as effective as the likes of ibuprofen in treating sports-related injuries.

How to eat more: You can add turmeric to many foods including stews, curries, pasta sauces and soups. It's also a super-easy way to add an extra kick to scrambled eggs, but don't add too much as the earthy taste can be overpowering in large doses.

4. Fennel seeds

If you often struggle with bloating after eating a large meal, a sprinkle of crunchy fennel seeds could be the gentle remedy you've been looking for.

"These sweet liquorice-flavoured seeds are popular in cuisines such as those found in the Mediterranean," says Hobson. He explains that the seed is traditionally used to help relieve bloating and flatulence, and that in traditional eastern medicine, it's also used as a way to aid digestion, thanks to its flavonoid antioxidants.

How to eat more: Fennel seeds work well in tomato-based dishes and can also be sprinkled on roasted vegetables.

This spice is also great when combined with fresh mint to make a tea to help reduce excess gas after eating.

5. Cinnamon

Cinnamon is total autumn favourite. Whether you get into the spirit of the season by creating homemade pumpkin spice lattes, or you simply love getting a noseful of it baking in your oven, this sweet spice has plenty of great benefits.

"Cinnamon is a tree bark and the most common variety is called 'cassia'," explains Hobson. "The compound in cinnamon responsible for its powerful health benefits is called 'cinnamaldehyde', which studies have found can help fight bacterial infections in the body."

Like many of the spices on this list, studies have isolated multiple flavonoid compounds in cinnamon that have helpful anti-inflammatory properties.

How to eat more: Whether you're a fan of cocoa or coffee, cinnamon is a great spice to add to hot drinks. It also works well in snack bars or sprinkled over fruit or yogurt.

It doesn't take too much effort to add more spices to your diet and harness their health benefits - the trick is finding your favourites. Whether you like a spicy kick or an earthy sweetener, make your preferred spices store cupboard essentials.

Both body and mind will thank you.

Nutritionist Jane McClenaghan (46), who lives in Belfast with her husband Nev (53) and their dog, says she uses a lot of herbs and spices for their health benefits.

“I would think ‘food first’ in terms of supporting health and wellbeing,” she says.

“I would encourage people to use different herbs and spices in their cooking in lots of different ways, even something as simple as adding cinnamon to their porridge to help with blood sugar levels or adding ginger to soups for its anti-inflammatory properties. It also helps with circulation.

“The other one I use a lot of is turmeric and there is lots written about it, again for its anti-inflammatory properties — for example, for somebody who has arthritis, eczema or joint pain. It also has really important immune supportive effects and, especially for this time of year, it’s been shown to have an impact on catarrh (a build-up of mucus in an airway or cavity of the body).”

Jane (above) says she cooks everything from scratch and has a cupboard full of herbs and spices.

“I use cinnamon every day, ginger most days, turmeric and garlic absolutely every day,” she says.

“The other ones that I think are worth highlighting are rosemary and thyme because they are really powerful antioxidants.”

For colds, Jane uses elderberry syrup plus lots of garlic, turmeric and  cayenne in her cooking.

“I think one of the best foods to have when you have a cold is curry  — it really clears things out!” she says.

“Make it nice and spicy with ginger and turmeric and lots of garlic, and pack in lots of vegetables too so they are getting lots of antioxidants to support the immune system. You also get lots of anti-inflammatory immune support from the spices as well.

“Chicken soup is good, especially if people are making soup from proper old-fashioned bone broth — but the important thing is that they use organic chicken. There are many healing properties from that,” she says.

“The other thing I think it’s important to mention is to get outside. So many people are cooped up and I do think getting out into nature is one of the most important things of all,” Jane stresses.

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