A stroll down the spice aisle at your local grocery store will offer a number of curry spice options. You might see a dry yellow curry powder, a red curry paste, or Indian spice mixes featuring curry as the main ingredient. These products might lead you to believe that curry is a single herb or spice, but in truth, curry takes many forms and is made up of a number of individual herbs and spices.
A quick glance at the menu in a Thai or Indian restaurant will reveal the most common forms curry takes, whether described by color (red, yellow, or green), or by flavor (panang, massaman, bhuna, masala).
While there are definitely ingredients that differ between the various types of curry, lending each its own distinct characteristics, most curries have a similar flavor profile to one another and share a few key ingredients. These common ingredients offer a host of health benefits that will likely convince you add curry into your healthy eating plan.
Most Common Ingredients
Curry is among the most common ingredients in Thai and Indian cuisines, as well as many surrounding countries such as Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and many other Middle Eastern and Asian countries.
Each country, and even each region within a country as large as India, offers slight variations in how they make their curries, but most curries are spicy, using black pepper or red pepper, and they also share a handful of other common ingredients:
- Turmeric: Known for its bright yellow-orange color, turmeric is responsible for curry’s yellow hue. It’s most commonly used as a dried powder, but you can sometimes find it fresh in the produce section. It’s related to ginger and shares ginger’s gnarled root appearance. But when you cut it open, the meat of the root glows orange.
- Ginger: This root spice offers a unique type of sweet spice. It can be used fresh or dried, and can even be juiced along with fresh fruits and veggies for a bit of a morning kick.
- Cinnamon: There are two types of cinnamon, cassia and ceylon, offering similar flavor to one another. Cassia is more common in the U.S., but both are relatively easy to find.
- Cumin: Common among a massive swath of cuisines all over the world, but originating in India and Middle Eastern countries, cumin is actually a seed. In most curries, cumin seeds are ground into a powder, but it can also be used as a whole seed in certain dishes.
- Coriander: Another seed, coriander is actually the seed that forms when cilantro goes to flower. Coriander seed can be used green (fresh) or brown (dried). When dried, it’s ground into a powdered spice.
- Cardamom: Either green or black, cardamom is best when kept in pod form and ground on demand. It offers a sweet aromatic element to curry as well as being one of the main ingredients in chai tea.
- Clove: Also extremely aromatic, a little bit of clove goes a long way. Cloves are packed with essential oils and should float in water rather than sink if they’re fresh (1). You can find it ground or as whole, dried flower buds.
Other common ingredients include mustard seeds, bay leaves, and sweet basil.
Health Benefits of Curry
Now that we have an idea of the main ingredients found in curry powder, let’s explore the reasons to add curry into your healthy diet. Each of the ingredients we’ve listed boasts a wealth of health benefits, especially antioxidants, which help fight cancer-causing free radicals.
The active ingredient in turmeric is called curcumin. Curcumin has been extensively studied, demonstrating incredible benefits, including reducing inflammation and oxidative stress, lowering blood sugar and blood fat, and better regulation of DHA, an omega–3 fatty acid (2). Even adding very small amounts of turmeric to your daily diet can enable you to reap the benefits of this powerful spice.
Researchers have also tracked turmeric’s powerful anti-cancer properties, mostly in animal studies using rats and mice. The main mechanisms that consistently block the formation and growth of cancer cells include antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, immuno-regulation, enzymatics, cell signalling, and cell cycle mechanisms. Curcumin shows in extensive lab tests to consistently support and regulate these mechanisms and has been studied in the lab with prostate, pancreatic, lung, cervical, breast, mouth, stomach, and colon cancer (2, 3).
It’s also shown itself to be a powerful cell detoxifier. Researchers are exploring the possibility that turmeric could play a role in treating patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases. In addition to its powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, curcumin is also anti-amyloid, preventing and even breaking up the plaques in the brain that lead to Alzheimer’s. While there’s still a lot more work to be done in this area, another chemical found in turmeric called tumerone has shown promise in animal studies by stimulating stem cells to create new brain cells (4).
Curcumin has also been studied for its ability to stimulate bone regrowth in post-menopausal rats. Bone remineralization is extremely beneficial for individuals at risk of osteoporosis, especially post-menopausal women, so more research in this area could mean a lot to that population in improving their bone health as they age (5).
Related to turmeric, ginger is also a root that boasts a number of health benefits. It’s most commonly known for its ability to settle the stomach (reduce nausea and morning sickness) in the form of tea or a chewy candy, but it also boasts a rich history of use in alternative medicine. Not only does it aid the digestive system, but practitioners of traditional medicine (whether Chinese or Ayurvedic medicine) use it to help fight flu and common cold (6). Ginger is also a powerful anti-inflammatory and has been shown to reduce the pain associated with osteoarthritis, both taken internally and used topically in combination with other herbs and oils (7, 8).
Importantly, ginger has been shown to have a powerfully positive effect in reducing heart disease risk factors, from high blood sugar to high cholestesterol. In one study, it drastically lowered both fasting blood sugar (short-term) and HbA1c levels (long-term) over a 12-week period. In two other studies, the addition of ginger powder resulted in lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels in rats over extended periods of time (6).
Cinnamon, Cardamom, and Coriander
These three ingredients found in curry have both been shown to have a beneficial effect in combating heart disease. Cinnamon reduces the bad cholesterol (LDL) and triglycerides while keeping the healthy cholesterol (HDL) stable (9). Cardamom is a vasodilator, which means it relaxes the blood vessels and lowers blood pressure (10). It also has diuretic properties, which removes water buildup in the body and decreases blood pressure (11). Coriander has been shown to lower cholesterol and triglycerides in addition to supporting healthy liver function and balancing blood sugar (12).
All three of these spices contain powerful antioxidants that support cardiovascular health, fight the growth and production of cancer cells, and boost the immune system (11, 13, 14).
Cinnamon also has a positive effect on blood sugar control and weight loss. Consuming it actually reduces insulin resistance, improves glucose uptake, and helps prevent metabolic syndrome and Type 2 diabetes (14).
Cumin and Clove
Both cumin and clove have antibacterial and anti-fungal properties that can help fend off foodborne illness such as E. coli. In addition, clove has been studied for oral health uses, stopping the growth of bacteria that can lead to gum disease (15, 16).
As with each of the other main ingredients that make up curry, cumin and clove are powerful antioxidants that may have protective effects against cardiovascular disease, bone loss, and the growth of cancer. Clove may also have particular benefit against fatty liver disease due in part to its eugenol content, but more studies still need to be done in this area (17).
Interestingly, cumin may help with narcotic drug dependence. Mice studies have indicated a reduction in addictive behaviors and symptoms of withdrawal, but it’s yet unknown if these effects extend to humans (18).
Curry on the Menu
The evidence is overwhelming that the ingredients found inside a jar of curry powder or paste offer a host of health benefits. From the vast antioxidant content to the digestive support, from the power to lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar, to the potential neural pathway benefits, curry seems to be the ultimate superfood.
Add a teaspoon of curry to your morning mug of bone broth or try one of the curry dishes on our blog to reap the benefits of this phytonutrient powerhouse.
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