Spice it up

A little ginger, nutmeg, turmeric and cinnamon can go a long way toward improving health. A new cookbook with healthy recipes aims to help you live longer.

By Lety Laurel

Don’t just drink plain milk. Try adding turmeric, ginger, nutmeg, a little black pepper and a sprinkle of cinnamon. To shortbread cookies, mix in rosemary and ginger. Like trail mix? Try adding coriander, turmeric, ginger, cumin and cardamom.

These ingredients, all anti-inflammatories, may save your life.

Inflammation can be beneficial—it’s the body’s way of protecting itself in response to infection or injury, adding nourishment or boosting immunity. But if inflammation is chronic or unresolved, it can increase cancer risk.

In 2015, researchers at UT Health San Antonio decided to try out a theory. If breast cancer survivors adopted a diet high in anti-inflammatory ingredients such as ginger, turmeric, garlic, green tea and deep-sea fish, and low in inflammatory ingredients such as processed foods and sugars, red meat and fatty foods, they believed the risk of cancer recurrence would decrease.

More than 150 women participated in the study, called Rx for Better Breast Health, funded through Susan G. Komen. Over a year, they received cooking classes, led by local chef Iverson Brownell, counseling and biomarker assessments to test the effects.

It wasn’t long before participants began reporting significant changes in their health and the health of their family members. Blood pressure levels went down. Energy levels increased. Although this was not a weight-loss diet, the pounds began coming off. Participant Pamela Cresswell noticed an improvement in her lupus symptoms.

“Suddenly, I didn’t ache. I felt better, too,” she said.

Soon, the women were collecting and sharing recipes. Spices never before used became staples in their everyday cooking.

“The funny thing is that the stuff is so good. It tastes wonderful,” Cresswell said. “I found that I liked everything, and now I use everything they taught us.”

The women surprised themselves, said Dorothy Long Parma, M.D., M.P.H., an investigator on the study.

“This is not the way we’re used to eating,” she said. “Some of us have never heard of turmeric or know where to find it in the grocery store. I was very surprised to find how they embraced the ingredients they weren’t used to eating.”

The study had another unexpected outcome. The women believed the recipes they discovered should be shared beyond their group of study participants. So a year after the study began, the women, guided by Chef Brownell, created The Rx Cookbook: Cancer-Fighting Recipes, Restaurants & Markets.

“We didn’t actually plan on doing a cookbook as part of the research protocol at the very beginning of the study, but it evolved because they were so interested,” Dr. Long Parma said. “It grew over time.”

The book features local fare such as barbecue rubs and chili con carne. There are salad recipes that are familiar: chicken Waldorf salad and avocado salad. There’s even a dessert section with spiced baked apples and cookies. All of them contain nontraditional ingredients in such subtle doses that they may not be detected—even by picky eaters.

“Someone was bragging to me about how they made cauliflower mashed potatoes and the kids couldn’t tell there wasn’t a single potato in the recipe,” Dr. Long Parma said. Ginger, a particularly strong spice, was a little more challenging to add in small doses.

“But someone had this idea of freezing it in ice cubes and sticking the cubes in their cooking to control the amount,” Dr. Long Parma said. “After that happened, people started making smoothies. That’s where the recipes started flying around.”

Because finding anti-inflammatory ingredients can be challenging, the cookbook also features a list of local stores that sell a range of spices, as well as restaurants that use the ingredients in their selections.

“We hope people can use this cookbook to help reverse the imbalance in our diets and prevent inflammatory disease,” said Amelie G. Ramirez, Dr.P.H., interim chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and director of the Institute for Health Promotion Research. She led the Rx for Better Breast Health Study, along with Michael Wargovich, Ph.D., and Rong Li, Ph.D., professors of molecular medicine.

Although study results are still being analyzed, the researchers do believe that fighting deadly diseases through diet is possible.

And, Dr. Long Parma added, “It tastes good, too. It really does.”

Watch a video recipe of sweet potato, carrot and turmeric soup here.





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  • Lisa Campeau February 14, 2018  

    In the recent Mission, you said that the book could be downloaded at salud.to/foodvscancer but that link does not lead to the antioxidant cookbook. Where can I find it? Thanks

  • laurell February 14, 2018  

    I’m so glad you wrote. The link salud.to/foodvscancer takes you to the Institute for Health Promotion Research page about the cookbook. Midway through the page, you’ll see a button that says “Download the RX Cookbook.” If you click there, you’ll get to the PDF of the cookbook. The direct link to the PDF is https://ihpr.uthscsa.edu/sites/ihpr/files/RxCancerFightingCookbook.pdf.

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