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Use of Spices Throughout the Ages

Updated on September 14, 2016


Spices are edible parts of a plant (roots, bark, seeds or fruit) used in minuscule quantities for the purpose of flavoring food. Spices can also be used to color food, a medicine or even to preserve food.

Spices differ from herbs in a few important ways, but there is a fine line between the two. Herbs come from the leaves of non-woody plants and may be fresh or dried. Spices come mostly from the plant's fruit or seeds and are often dried. Spices are usually tropical in origin.

Using Spice for Flavor

Common spices used to flavor foods include nutmeg, garlic, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, allspice, ginger, cumin and vanilla. Spices are useful in recipes to add flavor to what would normally be a bland dish. For example, you can use cloves, cinnamon and allspice with pork chops for a flavorful meal.

Cooks use spices as both tenderizers and sauces for meats, most notably cinnamon in pork chops. Compare that to the cinnamon bun recipe. The cinnamon acts sweet instead of savory when paired with sugar.

Did you know?

Vikings used dill, mint, coriander, parsley, thyme, marjoram, poppy seed, mustard, juniper berries, fennel. watercress, cumin, mustard, caraway, and garlic.

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Using Spices to Preserve Food

Today we use a variety of spices to help preserve food and keep food from going bad, even if that is not the cook's intent. We use dill and pepper for pickling. We use cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and ginger in our cookies and cakes that inhibit mold and bacteria. We use garlic, onions and other spices with meat.

Cinnamon, cloves and garlic all contain strong antibacterial properties that help kill harmful bacteria in food. This may explain the heavy usage of spices in meat during the medieval times both as a preservative and a flavor enhancer.

Researchers explored the antibiotic properties of spices and came to a startling conclusion that most have antibacterial properties and some, like mustard, have antifungal properties. What's more, the ratio of spicy food recipes to warm weather increases because of the propensity of bacterial growth in warmer climates.

Of course, you should never opt to use spices instead of conventional preservation methods. Spices have been known to fail to preserve properly, especially if contaminated when picked or dried.

Using Spices for Medicine

Spices have long been used as far back as the ancient Egyptians for medicine. Even now, spices can be used for medicinal properties such as capsicum peppers used as an analgesic, counter-irritant and expectorant; lemongrass for fever and insect bites; cinnamon as an antiseptic and anti-diarrhea agent; and mint as an expectorant, a local anesthesia, anti-spasm and for colds.


Spices have many medicinal qualities, but never use spices to treat a condition without first consulting a physician.

Although spices have been used for preserving and their antibacterial qualities, one should never solely rely on spices to keep your food safe. Practice good sanitation and safe food handling.


Do you use spices for more than just flavoring?

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