5 Dangers of Swallowing the Hype About Spice Health Benefits

natural herbal medicine bottle I’m sure you’ve seen over the top claims about spice health benefits and superfoods that make you immune to cancer. The second claim probably sounds real, but I made that one up. It’s hard to tell these days though, whether what we’re being told is true.

And it’s a cruel deception when people are suffering from ailments and can’t find a way to get relief. They jump online and try to sort out a little self-help, finding that some herb or spice or food can make them well again. I’ve seen this myself, working through my research for a series I’ll be posting here this year on the various culinary spices. Some of what I’ve read has been shocking. Mainly, it’s well-intentioned. But often the information is lifted from a single source and cloned all over the internet. And if it’s misleading – or just plain wrong – it’s easy for people to believe it and think they’re helping themselves, when they might be doing damage.

Disclaimer and My Credentials

Let me begin with this piece of advice: if you intend to start a drastic change to your diet, particularly one involving a single ingredient (herb or spice, for example), talk to your doctor first!

They’ll be able to tell you whether your choice is a wise one. Other factors, besides the ailment you are trying to fix, will almost certainly come into play. You will have to be very careful if you are pregnant or breast-feeding for example (I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, but I will anyway!) If you are taking a medication for an unrelated condition, there may be possible complications. Your family doctor can help you fight through this particular jungle.

The commonly cited one is grapefruit. This is a serious problem for people on long-term meds because of the fruit’s ability to shut down our bodies’ enzymes that are responsible for breaking down certain drugs. It can therefore cause dosing problems, even overdosing.

When I publish recipes on this blog, they contain small amounts of the spices and are obviously used for flavouring. Many single spices are available in large doses, and in capsule form. These are the ones I would suggest you should research for yourself first. If you think they might be helpful, THEN go and see your doctor and discuss it. Take your research with you if you like. But don’t just start gobbling half a pound of turmeric everyday without reading up on it or checking with anyone. (Turmeric in large doses is a skin sensitiser by the way. Seriously! Careful with it.)

Trust me, I’m a Doctor

Okay, so am I qualified to pontificate on this subject? Well, first of all I AM actually a doctor. Just not a medical doctor. My doctorate was in chemistry, and I spent twenty-plus years researching organic chemistry and natural product synthesis. I spent almost a decade working in the pharmaceutical industry, doing manufacturing process R&D.

Before anyone jumps into the comments accusing me of being “Big Pharma” and having a go at natural remedies to discredit them, I’m no longer in chemistry. I don’t get paid by woooOOOOOooooo evil pharma companies. I just see so much garbage published on the internet about the wonderful “bioactive” compounds in foodstuffs I feel compelled to write something as a warning.

In mitigation, I should say up front that I am very interested in the real quantifiable effects of chemicals found in natural substances. Practically every pharmaceutical drug we have originated in Nature. If you are interested in some of the chemical or technical aspects I highly recommend a book called Fundamentals of Pharmacognosy and Phytotherapy by Michael Heinrich and coauthors (from Amazon US | Amazon UK – these are affiliate links, so I get a fraction of the price as commission. You know, instead of Big Pharma paying me. Yay!)

Let’s jump in them and go straight to that bit about spices being good because they have “bioactive” components.

tobacco plants

Field of tobacco plants.

1. Spice Health Benefits Derive From Their Bioactive Ingredients

While all the foods we eat contain something or other that is biologically active, it doesn’t mean it’s going to have any health benefits. Some do, of course. Nobody would advise against eating oranges because they contain vitamin C, which is essential to our well-being.

In many cases, unless you already suffer from a particular deficiency in some nutrient, you are unlikely to notice the beneficial effects of a bioactive ingredient just by eating food that contains it. You simply know oranges contain vitamin C. You know you need vitamin C. So you eat oranges and other foods that contain it.

What about tobacco? It contains a bioactive too. Does that make it healthy? Not really. You could say the same for any number plants. Many clinical drug candidates are derivatives of chemicals found in plants. But you wouldn’t define them as healthy just because they have an effect on your body. Strychnine – from the Strychnos nux-vomica tree – is probably not too pleasant, for example.

The reason I decided to write this blog post was a webpage describing the beneficial bioactive compounds in cloves. It had the gall to list methylene chloride. You probably wouldn’t want a second go if you ingested too much of this. It is commonly used in labs as a chlorinated solvent. It’s completely immiscible with water, so probably wouldn’t do anything particularly healthy to your body in large doses. This one left me wondering whether the people writing those articles actually know anything about the subject. And they’re trying to convince you to scoff cloves like they grow on trees. Oh! Well, you know what I mean. ๐Ÿ˜‰

2. Questionable Beneficial Properties That Don’t Really Exist

This is probably going to be a quick one, as I saw an example – and kept seeing it as I did my meandering research on the web. It is something I felt a little uncomfortable about, not because of a total misrepresentation, but because of what I felt was an implication. Some of the sites ascribed antiviral properties to star anise on the basis that it contains shikimic acid. And indeed there is a small amount of data in the literature claiming that a combination of shikimic acid with quercetin shows promise using an in vitro model. (We’ll get to in vitro models below.)

Shikimic acid is found in large quantities in star anise. It is a precursor to the anti-influenza drug Tamiflu (oseltamivir). In fact, during the swine flu outbreak in 2009 (and also during 2005) star anise was in short supply as it was being used to produce the shikimic acid starting materials for pharma companies to build up international stocks of the drug.

But just as you have to refine crude oil to get petrol (gasoline) for your car, you need to do a series of chemical transformations to turn shikimic acid into Tamiflu. Just because the final product is an antiviral doesn’t mean the starting material is also one. But for the promising in vitro study, this would be a pretty bad generalization, ascribing properties to the spice star anise that are only true of the man-made pharmaceutical. Bad!

loading petri dish

3. Lab Studies, In Vitro Models and Human Clinical Trials

Okay, let’s take a swing at that in vitro model malarkey. So I’ve got this terrible cold. Coughing and spluttering everywhere. Just awful. And the scientists aren’t doing anything about it. So I cough onto a Petri dish and grow a nice sample (actually it’s not quite this simple for viruses, but let’s not split hairs).

After incubating for a while, I have a nice sample of my virus and guess what? If I squirt battery acid onto it, it kills the virus! Why didn’t these hot-shot scientists think of this. Now all I need to do is patent my new invention and wait for my Nobel Prize to arrive in the mail.

Read the Claims Carefully

Yes, all right. I’m being a jerk. But you get the point? Be acutely aware of what is being claimed when you see a report of some new superfood and its miraculous effects against tumours or Staph infections. There’s a long road to travel between killing a pathogen in a Petri dish, and getting it to do the same in the hugely complex environment inside the human body. Dosages and toxicity are important, as are potential side-effects.

It might not even be possible to get the active ingredient into the bloodstream without it getting smashed by our enzymes before it has a chance. An interesting case in point is that of turmeric. It has been claimed to have all sorts of wonderful effects, due to its bioactive agent curcumin. However, if you take even relatively high dosages, your liver enzymes metabolize it so fast that it never gets into the bloodstream to do its great work.

Thankfully for us our ancestors figured this one out for us, and turmeric is often used in combination with black pepper, which contains another bioactive called piperine. And what piperine does is inhibit the enzymes that catalyze glucuronidation in the liver. In other words, the piperine opens the door, allowing curcumin into the bloodstream unmetabolized. It is a significant effect too, increasing curcumin bioavailability by 2000%.

Always Sniff Out the Human In Vivo Studies

The point here is that those curcumin studies were carried out on real human patients, and showed that real beneficial effects could be elicited. And they also showed that combinations, again in humans clinical trials, circumvented the obstacles the liver threw in the way.

Make sure you find out if any human studies have been carried out on the spice or other natural remedy you are considering. Too often it’s just a case of dropping a bucketful onto a Petri dish and it worked. You might not find it so beneficial when you swallow it and your stomach acid or liver grab hold!

spice health benefits

4. Traditional Medicine Used It So It MUST Be True

I have conceded above that practically all – if not all – medicines started their lives as natural extracts, later modified by science. In a large number of these cases, the drugs companies started out with the knowledge that traditional medicines used certain herbs and spices to heal various conditions. It was then a simple matter of extracting the active ingredients, synthesizing them and enhancing the effect by chemical manipulation.

This doesn’t mean that all traditional medicine either works at all, or is perfectly safe to use. Often the knowledge of herbal medicine was combined with more mystical beliefs about anatomy. There might even be something to the mysticism, and who knows, one day we might have a full weaving together of modern medicine and anatomy with, for example, the chi meridian system of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

In the meantime, it’s best to stick with what can be proven, especially when certain beliefs still prevail in small sections of some communities, for example that ground-up tigers can help with joint-pain and rheumatism. Even if this has any merit at all, it would be a simple enough venture to isolate the chemical responsible and to synthesize it commercially, rather than wiping this cat species out entirely.

My Experience of Traditional Methods (TCM)

Having said that, I am a fan of trying such medical interventions, and have tried Chinese herbology in the past, as well as acupuncture on many occasions. The design of proper clinical trials is generally one of the main problems that muddies the water with regard to the effectiveness of traditional methods. In my personal experience, taking herbs and acupuncture for hypertension reduced my blood pressure from 185/110 to 138/82 in six weeks. The literature on this is, however, inconclusive or the effects temporary. For me, the reduction was permanent, but other life factors almost certainly also contributed, not least leaving the rather stressful career I was in at the time!

On balance do not assume that the old ways are always the best, or even that our ancestors knew what they were doing.

5. Beware Spices That Are Too Active

Okay, so you’ve done your best, and now understand which herbs and spices are really good for your health. And you know whether the ingredients and healthy nutrients are actually getting into your body without being demolished by the digestive system. Everything’s fine, right? You can scoff down your own body weight in cinnamon sticks every hour. Right? Well, of course, no.

Remember the old adage attibuted to Paracelsus that (and I paraphrase) “only the dose differentiates a poison from a remedy.”

Yes, I know I’m harking back to the ancestors after telling you they didn’t know what they were doing! But I find this adage to be obvious.

You shouldn’t make sudden drastic changes without consulting an expert. I’ve already mentioned this above but it is worth labouring over. Cloves for example, contain eugenol, which has its benefits, but which is also toxic in high doses. You shouldn’t be eating these things by the handful. Cinnamon is another example. Delicious in curries. Delightful in gingerbread. I even occasionally add a tiny dash to black coffee. But in high dosages, the coumarins that it contains can cause liver damage. (It’s worth noting the origin of your ground cinnamon. Very often, it is actually cassia bark. True cinnamon – from Sri Lanka – only contains trace amounts, whereas cassia cinnamon contains up to 1% coumarin.)

Thankfully for most of us, cinnamon comes with an in-built safety system (see the video):

I had to embed that clip here on the blog, because Youtube is filled with dozens of similar ones. It’s a hilarious rabbit-hole to get sucked down – and then you realize you’ve just wasted two hours laughing at people trying this challenge. Don’t do it!

Other Conditions and Other Drugs

A problem to consider, especially if you’re not trained in any kind of medicine, is that of diagnosis. Self-treatment without seeking professional advice might work for you in helping with a cough or a headache. But what if you’re only treating a symptom and ignoring the underlying cause. Arguably, relying on a spice health benefit that you read about somewhere on the internet might be the one thing that causes the most problems in the long-term.

I mentioned contraindications earlier. If you’re on meds for a long-term condition, and an irritating and unrelated problem crops up, you need to think holistically. Will taking large doses of that spice interfere with your meds and cause a serious emergency? You need to know before trying out the spice, not afterwards.

I advise you always to look up possible clashes occurring with your regular medicines, and also in relation to your general condition, medicated or not. Bad problems like heart conditions as well as wonderful conditions like pregnancy all need to be taken into account.

You can trawl the internet and do your own research, and then I’d suggest going down the expert route to make double-sure. Here is a quick list of herbs and their adverse interactions, and things to embrace and avoid during pregnancy. You can find all sorts of potential problems, like the reported problems with painkillers.

Summary and Conclusion

So be careful out there. Note that when I discuss spices for therapeutic action I am normally talking about high doses. These are the food supplements and capsules you seem to be able to buy everywhere. It’s much better to eat a balanced and varied diet and if you like spices (like I do) just eat them in normal recipes and enjoy them for their aroma and flavour, rather than seeking tablets. Let your doc help you with any ailments and if they say to eat more garlic, or try whatever else, that’s fine. There are certainly spice health benefits to be discovered if you look hard enough. But don’t trust the first blog post on the web that you find to tell you the unvarnished truth. Be more critical – it’s YOUR health after all.

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