In moderation, some spices seem to reduce incidences of disease.
NEW ORLEANS -- Ancient pharmacists may have been onto something -- evidence is growing that herbs and spices are nature's aspirins containing natural agents to reduce inflammations that could lead to cancers.
Researchers pointed to the hottest spices as working the best, but they warned at last week's annual convention of the Institute of Food Technologists that the secret is that a little of the hot stuff goes a long way.
Raj Vattan, a food researcher at Texas State University, said overuse of common herbs like rosemary, thyme, curry and red pepper can make bacteria more resistant to treatment. But eaten in moderation, herbs and spices rich in antioxidants do seem to reduce incidences of chronic diseases like cancer, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, he said.
Food researchers say advances in genetic biology are giving scientists new methods of enhancing antioxidants in food, but the exact mechanism of how the herbs and spices work isn't yet fully understood.
Michael Wargovich, a researcher with the South Carolina Cancer Center at the University of South Carolina, said 15 scientific studies found that daily consumption of aspirins or anti-inflammatory drugs were related to a 50 percent reduction in colon cancer. Wargovich noted that aspirin and anti-inflammatory drugs can lead to ulcers and are toxic if overused.
Wargovich said plant-based anti-inflammatory compounds might provide an easier and cheaper way for people to obtain beneficial levels of anti-inflammatory drugs than taking prescription drugs. Wargovich said he has identified one chemical in tea that has reduced tumors in rats.
Some African herbs also have antimicrobial qualities that could help suppress tumors. He said his research indicates that Senegal mahogany -- traditionally used in West Africa to treat malaria, diarrhea and menstrual cramps -- may prove to have cancer-fighting properties that are more effective than many prescribed drugs.
Young-Joon Surh, of South Korea's Seoul University College of Pharmacy, said spicy bits of hot peppers, mustards and spices also have been shown to decrease the size of tumors in laboratory mice.