Aug. 6, 2008 -- The spice cabinet may prove to be a source of help for diabetes patients.
Some of the most commonly used dried herbs and spices may help block the inflammation believed to drive diabetes and other chronic diseases, laboratory studies conducted by researchers from the University of Georgia suggest.
The researchers tested extracts from 24 common herbs and spices and found that many contained high levels of inflammation-inhibiting antioxidant compounds known as polyphenols.
The early findings suggest that liberal use of cinnamon in your morning oatmeal or Italian seasonings in your spaghetti sauce could have big payoffs for your health, researcher James L. Hargrove, PhD, tells WebMD.
"We might all be better off if we used less salt and pepper, and focused more on herbs and spices," Hargrove says. "I've started putting oregano in my eggs. That's not a big change."
Cinnamon and Diabetes
Hargrove and colleagues found that ground clove had the most inflammation-calming polyphenols of any of the spice and herb extracts they tested.
Cinnamon came in second, but because it is used more in cooking and in larger amounts than ground cloves it has more potential to positively affect health, he says.
So much has been written about the benefits of cinnamon for lowering blood sugar that many diabetes patients now take cinnamon supplements.
But the research on cinnamon's effect on diabetes has been mixed.
Richard Anderson, PhD, was among the first modern researchers to link the antioxidants in cinnamon to increased anti-inflammatory response and blood sugar reductions in diabetes patients.
A scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center, Anderson tells WebMD that he made the connection after finding that instead of raising blood sugar as expected, apple pie lowered blood glucose in their test tube study.
"At first we thought it was the apples, but it soon became clear that it was the cinnamon," he says.
In a 2003 study, Anderson and colleagues reported that as little as half a teaspoon of cinnamon a day significantly reduced blood sugar and improved cholesterol in people with type 2 diabetes who took cinnamon in capsule form after meals.
But combined results from five other studies examining cinnamon supplementation in diabetes patients showed little evidence of a benefit.
"Taking cinnamon supplements for the purposes of either improving glucose control or improving cholesterol levels is not supported by the evidence that is currently available," analysis co-author William L. Baker, PharmD, of Hartford Hospital in Connecticut, tells WebMD.
But Baker adds that the combined studies included just 282 patients treated with either a placebo or various doses of cinnamon.
"These were small studies," he says. "Larger studies may show that supplementation is beneficial, but it seems unlikely."
Herbs and Spices: Variety Is Best
The newly published study by Hargrove and colleagues appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Medicinal Food.
Hargrove tells WebMD that he purchased the 24 spices used for the study at a nearby Wal-Mart.
"We showed that herbs and spices are powerful sources of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents," Hargrove says. "About a teaspoon of cinnamon, for example, is plenty to get these beneficial effects."
When blood sugar levels are high a process known as protein glycation occurs, which produces compounds that promote inflammation. These are known as AGE compounds (advanced glycation end-products). The researchers found a strong correlation in polyphenol content in herbs and spices tested and their ability to block the formation of AGE compounds.
Spices -- derived from seeds, berries, bark, or roots -- tended to have higher levels of polyphenols than dried herbs, derived from plant leaves.
Of the herbs tested by the researchers, oregano, marjoram, and sage had the highest polyphenol levels, followed by thyme, Italian seasoning, tarragon, mint, and rosemary. Black pepper had the lowest polyphenol content of any of the tested herbs and spices.
But researcher Diane Hartle, PhD, says it is best not to focus on any single herb or spice, suggesting that seasoning foods with a variety of spices is best.
In a news release, Hartle noted that different polyphenols have different mechanisms of action within the body. "If you set up a good herb and spice cabinet and season your food liberally, you could double or even triple the medicinal value of your meal without increasing the calorie content."