Plant Power

Spices do more than flavor your food — they could protect you from food poisoning.

By Susan Mudd, CNS

spices with benefitsIf the recent scares related to contaminated peanut butter, pistachios, spinach, tomatoes, and jalapeno peppers have left you uneasy about your produce, one surprisingly simple solution may be sitting right in your kitchen.

According to an article published in the July 2008 issue of Agricultural Research Magazine, new technology has allowed scientists to discover potent bacteria-fighting power in some common herbs and spices. Food technologists at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) have developed “edible films” from a variety of plant foods, including the spices oregano, cinnamon, and lemongrass. These small square films — only one five-thousandth of an inch thick — contain tiny amounts of naturally occurring antimicrobials found in the oils of these spices, which not only provide flavor but, more importantly, a strong defense against many pathogens that can lead to food borne illnesses, such as E.coli, Salmonella, and Listeria.

Of the eight plant substances tested, carvacrol, one of the oils found in oregano, was the most effective in killing E. coli in laboratory tests. But other oils, such as citral from lemongrass and cinnamaldehyde from cinnamon, also scored high for efficacy. As an added bonus, oil of oregano is also a natural antifungal and has been used by natural health care practitioners to combat health problems due to the candida albicans fungus, better known as yeast.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food-borne illnesses affect approximately 76 million people each year — that’s one out of every three Americans. Symptoms can range from diarrhea to urinary tract infections and respiratory problems. Of that number, 325,000 Americans are hospitalized and 5,000 die from exposure to food pathogens. Even in less severe cases, these pathogens can wreak havoc on the immune system, which can lead to increased inflammation and negative effects on insulin sensitivity. So keeping food pathogen-free is even more critical for people with diabetes.

These films appear to be safe, natural, and effective, so their use in commercial food manufacturing may not be too far off in the future: Optimistic researchers estimate testing them at produce packing houses in the next year or two.

In the meantime, however, it makes sense to spice up meals with some of these natural defenders of food safety. Of the 200 botanicals initially tested, those that rose to the top in the category of E. coli killers were oregano, thyme, cinnamon, palmarosa (sometimes referred to as rose geranium), bay leaf, clove, lemongrass, and allspice. In addition to fighting bacteria, virtually all herbs and spices come with other health-promoting properties. So stock up if they’re not already in your spice rack. And, remember, washing hands before handling food is one of the best ways to avoid many types of food borne illnesses. So soap up, and spice up.

1 – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Foodborne Illness, October 2005. (Accessed July 2008).
2 – Wood, Marcia. 2008. For Tomorrow’s Salads: Plant Extracts to Conquer Microbes. Agricultural Research magazine 56(6): 8 – 10.

Reviewed by Susan Weiner, R.D., M.S., C.D.E., C.D.N. 10/08

Last Modified Date: November 28, 2012

All content on is created and reviewed in compliance with our editorial policy.

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by Brenda Bell
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