From the dawn of civilization, humans sought spices around the world. The seafarers of the ancient lands braved the raging waves and winds to go to distant lands in search of spices and aromatics.

The discovery of the fairyland of spices and Spice Islands was one of the major aims of most circumnavigations during the age of Renaissance. Such navigational expeditions and discoveries had opened up the flora and fauna of many countries to the rest of the world. The most notable was the ‘Columbian exchange’, following the discovery of the American continent by Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci. Columbus went in search of India and black pepper, but instead discovered America and red pepper. The exchanges that followed the discovery of new lands changed radically the cuisines of the world and medicines too, “reshaping every one’s food basket and medicine chest significantly.”

Spices around the world

Some major spices that drew the West to the East – how many of these spices do you use weekly?

The addition of spices profoundly affects basic taste sensations because their addition imparts a bouquet of flavour notes to a dish. Such flavour profiles are described variously – no spice has a single flavour profile, with the possible exception of watercress that imparts just pungency without any accompanying flavour notes. The flavour notes of spices can be described as bitter, earthy, floral, fruity, hot, nutty, piney and so on. Flavours interact with other ingredients to generate the final taste and flavour of a given dish, and the combinations are endless.

Spices for health

There are also many healthcare benefits associated with spices. They have been used in many traditional medicine systems, most notably in the Indian traditional medicine system (known as Ayurveda). However the scientific community has only recently recognised the medicinal benefits of spices. As a result of the accumulated knowledge of the chemistry of particular active ingredients along with testing in animal studies, scientists have isolated the individual medicinal properties of many herbs and spices. Some health benefits include antidiabetic antioxidant and anti-inflammatory characteristics. The infographic below shows the medicinal properties of five commonly used herbs and spices:

Health benefits of herbs and spices

Spices are becoming more visible in human health management in the form of health foods. Many spices have health benefits as they are capable of providing nutraceutical benefits for the prevention of many ailments. For instance, they can be beneficial for lifestyle diseases that are plaguing affluent society around the world.

Spices in human history

Spices have played a very colourful role in human history. It is now difficult for us to appreciate the vast influence that spices had on people and nations during the checkered history of humankind. Wars were fought, kingdoms were built and demolished, cities grew, flourished and declined, and the destiny of humankind was influenced so much, all for the sake of spices.

Parry wrote: “It is difficult for us who buy our supplies of pepper, cassia, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, mace and nutmeg so casually and so cheaply to believe that there was ever a time when these spices were so eagerly sought after and represented so much wealth and power that destiny itself was indivisible from them”.

BB Aggarwal, a specialist in spices pharmacology, commented in a recent paper : “As side effects and disappointments with modern drugs grow, and the potential of spice-derived nutraceuticals against various neurodegenerative diseases becomes more evident, some of these nutraceuticals may be developed as new drugs against Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, or other neurodegenerative maladies.”

The saga of spices goes on and on. Demand has never been higher.


Aggarwal, B.B. and Kunnumakkara, A.B. (eds) (2009) Molecular Targets And Therapeutic Uses Of Spices, World Scientific Co., Singapore, pp. 1–24.

Aggarwal, B.B., Van Kuiken, M.E., Iyer, L.H., Harikumar, K.B. and Sung, B. (2009) Molecular targets of nutraceuticals derived from dietary spices: potential role in suppression of inflammation and tumorigenesis. Experimental Biology and Medicine (Maywood) 234, 825–849.

Kunnumakkara, A.B., Koca, C., Dey, S., Gehlot, P., Yodkeeree, S., Danda, D., Sung, B. and Aggarwal, B.B. (2009) Traditional Uses of Spices: An Overview.In: Aggarwal, B.B. and Kunnumakkara, A.B. (eds) Molecular Targets And Therapeutic Uses Of Spices, World Scientific Co., Singapore, pp. 1–24.Ravindran, P.N. (2007) Spices: Definition, classification, history, properties, uses and role in Indian life. In: Ravindran, P.N., Nirmal Babu, K., Shiva, K.N. and Kallupurackal, J.A. (2006) Advances in Spices Research. Agrobios, Jodhpur, pp. 1–42.

Srinivasan, K  (2005) Role of Spices Beyond Food Flavoring: Nutraceuticals with Multiple Health Effects. Food Reviews International , 21, 167 ‑188.

About the author:


P.N. Ravindran is one of the best-known spice scientists, whose experience in the field of spices spans more than three decades. Dr Ravindran has authored more than 300 research and review papers and edited monographs on Black pepper (Harwood Academic, 2000, now CRC), Cardamom – the genus Elettaria  (Taylor & Francis, 2002), Cinnamon and Cassia – the genus Cinnamomum (CRC Press, 2004), Ginger – the genus Zingiber (CRC Press, 2005) and Turmeric – the genus Curcuma (CRC Press, 2007). He has compiled and published the large volume entitled Advances in Spices Research: History and Achievements in Spices Research in India since Independence, a valuable document and database on spice research in India. CABI has entrusted with him the writing of the first scientific Encyclopedia on Herbs and Spices. He is also the author of the much acclaimed book, Lotus the Cosmic Flower.

The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices, by P N Ravindran, is now available to buy with 20% discount –  enter code CCAB20 in the CABI Bookshop

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