Some like it hot, some can’t stand the heat, but, however you like it, research shows that a delicious, aromatic curry is not only tasty, it can be great for your health too. Sceptical? You’d have good reason to be. The spicy stuff gets a bad rep, often thought to be stuffed full of saturated fat, sugar and salt.
According to Juliot Vinolia, clinical dietitian and consultant nutritionist at iCare Clinics, Dubai, even though creamy kormas are full of butter and ghee and best avoided by those watching their waistlines, the typical curry spices, herbs and allium vegetables, such as garlic and onion, all have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties and can help prevent the onset of conditions such as arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease. Even coconut milk – often thought of as a curry ‘baddy’ because of its saturated fat content – has health benefits, says Priya Tew, a freelance dietician registered with the British Dietetic Association. “The fat is made up of shorter-chain fatty acids that have been shown to be easier for the body to break down and have more health benefits, including lowering cholesterol, high blood pressure and reducing the risk of heart disease,” she says.
Of course, moderation is key, as Chandy George, senior Ayurvedic consultant at Balance Wellness Club, warns, “Excessive intake of any ingredient or food can have a negative effect on the body.” So, while you shouldn’t go crazy for a curry at every meal time, we get the lowdown on the how curry spices can be good for you... Turmeric:
All good curry cooks know that turmeric is a primary ingredient, and it’s the spice responsible for many a masala’s health benefits. Used mainly for its ability to give a curry that deep, rich, amber hue, it also has anti-bacterial properties and is helpful in fighting infection in wounds and cuts, says nutritionist Vinolia. Lab tests have shown turmeric reduces and eases pain associated with inflammation of the joints, and that it lowers the risk of developing prostate and breast cancer due to its antioxidant properties. It also contains curcumin, which reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia by binding to amyloid plaques (hardened protein fragments between nerve cells in the brain and one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s) to prevent them from reproducing, says Kiram Tabyli, area technical head at Slimming, VLCC. Being a natural blood thinner, some research has shown that turmeric may help prevent the formation of blood clots, but this also means it shouldn’t be consumed by those currently taking anti-coagulants or anti-platelet medicines, warns George.
That craving you have for a curry kick? It’s all down to the addictive happiness hormones in those hot-healers, chillies. Research suggests that when the body defends itself against the heat of a chilli it releases endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. This has been shown to help with chronically painful conditions such as arthritis. According to the Arthritis Research Institute of America, capsaicin, the component that gives chilli its heat, provides effective arthritic pain relief, without the sedative side effects associated with some painkillers. Consuming chilli peppers can also boost the infection-fighting cells and is a helpful decongestant for people suffering from hay fever or flu. Used fresh, dried or in powder form to add flavour and heat to a dish, chillies are rich in vitamin C (about twice that of citrus fruits), and the powerful antioxidant vitamin A. Chillies have antibacterial qualities, and contain super-antioxidants called bioflavonoids, which support strong cell formation, contribute to good heart health and overall well-being by combating atherosclerosis (a disease caused by build up of plaque inside the arteries) and allowing oxygen-rich blood to flow to the heart and other parts of the body. But it’s best to keep your curries at lip-smacking spice level rather than eye-watering. George says, “Consuming fiery curries that contain large quantities of red chillies may be harmful to your kidneys – moderation is key.”
“The aromatic and flavourful fenugreek leaves are a rich source of carbohydrates, dietary fibres, fats and minerals and the seeds contain protein, vitamin C and potassium,” says George. A 2003 study revealed that fenugreek seeds, which are high in soluble fibre, are an effective treatment for diabetes because they help lower blood glucose by slowing down carbohydrate digestion and absorption. Meanwhile, a clinical study published in Phytotherapy Research showed that steroidal saponins compounds found in fenugreek seeds lower cholesterol levels by inhibiting cholesterol absorption in the intestines and its production by the liver. In addition, Tabyli says fenugreek is used to treat arthritis, and respiratory conditions such as asthma and bronchitis as well as cure digestive problems. Vinolia adds that due to its oestrogen-like properties, fenugreek is helpful for menopausal women as it lessens the effects of hot flushes and mood fluctuations.
Both the leaves and seeds of this Mediterranean herb are packed with goodness. Normally used as a garnish or to make chutneys, the seeds are often crushed or roasted and used to enhance the flavour of curries. Coriander aids digestion and is rich in iron, which helps prevent anaemia. It is also packed with vitamin C, which is a natural antioxidant that helps promote healthy liver function and prevents eye diseases and problems, says George. Coriander also increases levels of HDL (good) cholesterol and reduces levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol.
This versatile spice, which works on sweet and savoury dishes, comes from the bark of the cinnamon tree. Research by Diabetes UK suggests that cinnamon combats diabetes by helping to lower blood sugar. Cinnamaldehyde, a chemical found in Cassia cinnamon, is believed to have anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties and is good for treating yeast infections. George says cinnamon contains antioxidants that are helpful in relieving pain among arthritis sufferers, boosting the body’s immune system and relieving indigestion. The herb also has antimicrobial and anticlotting properties that prevent the formation of blood clots, says Tabyli.
These little seeds, which can be used whole or in ground form to give curry its peppery flavour, are packed with health benefits. Cumin can stimulate the production of pancreatic enzymes and help improve digestion and absorption of nutrients, says Vinolia. Cumin contains phytochemicals and anti-cancer agents such as carveol and limonene, which help block hormone actions that are associated with the development of cancer and heart disease. Studies showed patients consuming high levels of the antioxidant-rich cumin were less likely to develop prostate cancer. Cumin is rich in iron, a key element in the formation of hemoglobin, which is instrumental in oxygen distribution and helps prevent anaemia.
This spice is high in the phytochemical cineole and has strong antiseptic and antimicrobial properties. It is helpful in easing digestion problems such as heartburn, irritable bowel syndrome and relieving constipation, says Vinolia. Lab tests at Chung Hsing University, Taiwan, showed that cardamon assists in increasing bowel movement and releasing toxins. In addition, a study at Aga Khan University, Pakistan, revealed that cardamon has diuretic properties; it increases output from the kidneys and rids the body of excess fluids and toxins. It is also used to treat common colds, coughs and sore throats, and infections in the gallbladder. Research at the Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute, India, revealed that the spice can combat colon cancer owing to the powerful antioxidants it contains.
Onion not only adds flavour to your curry, it is also a good source of fibre, vitamin C, calcium, iron and folic acid. Research published in the August 2006 issue of Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology showed that quercetin, an anti-oxidant flavonoid found in onion, can help prevent certain types of cancers including colon, breast and ovarian. A lab study at the University of Bern, Switzerland, showed that consuming onion may decrease the risk of developing osteoporosis. In the study, animals given a gram of dry onion per day for four weeks increased bone mineral content by more than 17 per cent and mineral density by more than 13 per cent compared to those that were fed a control diet.
These add flavour and a distinct aroma to a curry. The leaves are rich in iron, calcium, phosphorus and vitamins A, B, C and E. Tabyli says consuming curry leaves can help diabetics maintain healthy blood-glucose levels by restricting the action of digestive enzymes involved in the breakdown of starch to glucose. Eating curry leaves is also good for your eyesight and is believed to help prevent the growth of cataracts, Tabyli says.
A curry is not complete without the pungent garlic, which is normally added either chopped, minced or puréed. Packed with sulphur compounds such as allicin and selenium, garlic has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-oxidant properties that offer many health benefits. According to the World Health Organisation, allicin helps reduce blood pressure and cholesterol, thereby protecting the heart. Garlic is also known to combat allergies and treat throat infections due to its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. However, eating too much garlic could have side effects such as irritation or damage of the digestive system. Experts recommend consuming half a clove a day. Also, garlic can disrupt anti-coagulants, therefore it is advisable to avoid consuming food containing garlic before surgery.