Dr. Chee Huei Phing Assistant Professor & Clinical Dietitian, Faculty of Science, Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman
Over the centuries, herbs and spices have had a pivotal place in many civilisations and cultures. . These days, they are also valued for their possible health benefits, which include antioxidant properties that can affect drug metabolism, immune-competence, cell division and apoptosis (cell death).
There is increasing evidence to demonstrate that cancer is preventable, and herbs and spices may play a role in this.
Ginger/root ginger (Zingiberaceae) has long been valued for its potential to reduce nausea experienced by patients receiving chemotherapy.
Basil is a culinary herb heavily featured in Southeast Asian and Italian cuisines. It contains numerous substances that are said to be able to protect against free radical damage, tumour formation, gene mutation, bacteria and viruses. However, it also contains estragole, a substance that may be transformed into a carcinogen (cancer-causing substance) once it is ingested. Current research suggests that the potential benefits of basil outweigh the possible risks caused by estragole.
Cinnamon is a spice from the bark of an evergreen tree from the Lauraceae family. Research suggests that cinnamon extracts can be useful in suppressing the growth of the bacteria Helicobacter pylori, a risk factor for gastric cancer.
Coriander contains linalool, which may be helpful in helping to reduce free radical damage to the liver and associated tissues and organ. Therefore, it may be helpful in reducing the risk of liver cancer
Garlic’s typical characteristics arise from sulfur, which makes up approximately 1% of its dry weight. Although it does not usually serve as a prominent source of essential nutrients, research in laboratories found compelling evidence that garlic and its related components can reduce the incidence of colon, breast, skin, esophagus, uterine and lung cancers. However, more research need to be done on its effects on humans before we can come to any strong conclusion on the benefits of garlic against cancer,
The conclusion… for now
There are still too many unanswered questions that have to be researched thoroughly before we can make any conclusions about the use of herbs and spices against cancer. The World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research perhaps summed it best when they said that a healthy lifestyle, rather than focusing on specific ingredients alone, is probably the best way to improve our odds against cancer. Below are their recommendations:
- Be as lean as possible within the normal range of body weight.
- Be physically active every day.
- Limit consumption of energy-dense foods and avoid sugary drinks. Fruit juices should also be limited.
- Eat at least 5 servings (400 g) of non-starchy vegetables and fruits daily. Incorporate fruits and vegetables of many different colours in your diet.
- Limit intake of red meat (beef, pork, lamb) and processed meat (meat preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or addition of chemical preservatives).
- Limit alcohol drinks
- Limit consumption of salt.
- If you are unable to meet your daily nutritional intake due to illness or other reasons, supplements may be useful.
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