Spices and natural oils: Why choosing the right masalas is vital for good health?
Mention Indian food today, and you will automatically hear the word “spicy”. While we take pride in the heady blends of flavours in our favourite foods, we often neglect the health benefits these myriad spices deliver. As a result, mass-manufactured masalas often prioritize taste over health, leaving our diets all the poorer for it.
How spices contribute to good health
Important spices used in Indian cooking contain natural oils, which provide antioxidants with anti-inflammatory properties. Science is now discovering that most diseases, including diabetes, involve inflammatory processes. The anti-inflammatory ingredients in spices can thus help prevent diseases or contribute to slowing their progression. The natural oils also aid in maintaining good digestion, which improves absorption of nutrients.
Some important benefits provided by spices are:
• Turmeric: It contains the active ingredient curcumin and helps in treating itching and skin ailments, reducing nasal congestion, modulating depression, and reducing triglycerides in the blood and fat build up in the liver. Traditionally turmeric was also used to treat burns and abscesses.
• Coriander seeds: They are used for treating upset stomachs, nausea, and diarrhoea and to improve digestion. In combination with ginger and lime, they help treat flatulence with bowel spasms. They are also effective against tooth aches and joint pains.
• Cumin seeds:Cumin seeds help reduce flatulence and severe indigestion. They are roasted, powdered, and eaten with hot rice to improve digestion. Water boiled with cumin seeds is drunk to improve digestion in the elderly.
• Cinnamon: Containing the active ingredient cinnamaldehyde, cinnamon is beneficial for controlling blood sugar, blood pressure, and blood cholesterol. It has antioxidant, anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties, and is sometimes used to treat bronchitis.
• Cardamom: Cardamom has a diuretic effect and helps regulate blood pressure. It is also rich in anti-oxidants and helps in respiratory inflammation reduction. It is also helpful in improving liver health in persons with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Many of these spices come together in the common masalas used in Indian cooking such as sambhar masala, rasam masala, and chhole masala. Though these spices are used in small amounts, they help to maintain the nutritional balance of many minerals and micronutrients.
The problem with many packaged masalas
While traditional masalas contribute significantly to good health, many mainstream masala brands may be depriving us of these essential properties because of the way they are manufactured. To cut manufacturing costs, many mass manufacturers use synthetic substitutes that are cheaper and provide similar tastes but do not contain the all-important natural oils. Even where actual spices are used, they often rely on lower quality ingredients that do not contain sufficient natural oils.
In particular, blended masalas such as sambar powder or chhole masala contain a mix of expensive, healthful spices and cheaper ingredients. Mass producers often vary their recipes to increase the proportion of cheaper ingredients to reduce production costs.
Picking the right masalas
In the old days, masalas would be made at home from all-natural spices. People would roast the ingredients lightly and grind them by hand at home to retain the natural oils and create highly flavourful, aromatic and healthful masalas.
However, in today’s times sourcing ingredients and grinding them by hand can be an expensive and cumbersome affair. So, it’s important to pick masalas from brands that conserve natural oils through their production process. It is only when masalas are created and blended with care that they contain the most important anti-inflammatory and digestive ingredients that help maintain dietary balances and keep us in the best of health.
Good health depends on getting the right balance of nutrition. Traditional Indian cooking can go a long way in aiding this process, but only if we take care to use the right ingredients and spices. While we may not be able to follow traditional Indian cooking practices given our modern lives, we can choose to buy products which are the healthier options. When you buy ready-made masalas, make sure you buy the ones which retain the natural oils.
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