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10 Spices, Spreads and Oils for Your Healthy Kitchen

You'll be prepared to cook healthy, flavorful meals if you stock your kitchen with these must-have spices, spreads and oil. See more spice pictures.
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Sometimes, healthy food gets a bad rap. In today's world of ready-made microwave meals and supposedly natural foods that are loaded with chemical preservatives and trans fats, it's hard to present your family with healthy options that everyone will want to eat. It can be extremely difficult to find ingredients that add flavor to your meals without negating their nutritional value.

Luckily, you don't have to stock your pantry exclusively with tofu and flaxseed to have a healthy kitchen. In this article, we'll introduce you to 10 spices, spreads and oils that you can use to add a healthy kick to just about any meal. You'll learn what kind of cheese provides guilt-free dining and which spices you can rely on to get rid of embarrassing gas.

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Click on over to the next page to learn which stinky, spicy herb can help fight cancer.

Unless you've got fangs and an unrelenting hankering for human blood, it's not a bad idea to try adding more garlic to your diet. Many people shy away from this stinky herb out of fear of persistent bad breath, but the health benefits of eating garlic far outweigh the odorous oral consequences. (Just remember to buy breath mints whenever you pick up any garlic cloves at the market.)

So what are these benefits? Garlic is a natural anti-clotting agent, and it can also lower blood pressure and cholesterol. This, in turn, can reduce the chance of having a stroke or developing heart disease. Garlic also has antibacterial properties. In fact, garlic juice has slowed the growth of several microorganisms in lab tests [source: Rinzler]. Perhaps most amazingly, garlic has the power to prevent cancer cells from growing, and people who frequently eat it are less likely to develop colon and stomach cancers [source: Hepfer]. This pungent herb even works as an ironic antiflatulent.

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Best of all, adding a bit of garlic to your diet is easy. It makes an excellent accent to just about any salad or pasta, and you can even sprinkle a bit of crushed garlic into some ground beef for a savory hamburger.

Canola oil might not have much flavor, but it's got plenty of healthful benefits.
Canola oil might not have much flavor, but it's got plenty of healthful benefits.
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Everyone knows that saturated and trans fats are bad for you. They work tirelessly to expand your waistline, clog your arteries and raise your cholesterol, all of which can be very damaging to your heart. However, there are heart-healthy unsaturated fats out there, and you don't have to dine exclusively on nuts and seeds to get to them. One great way to increase your intake of healthy unsaturated fats and essential fatty acids is to use canola oil when you cook.

Canola oil is virtually tasteless and only contains 7 percent saturated fat, which is the lowest saturated fat content of any commonly consumed cooking oil in the United States. Even more impressively, it's loaded with healthy unsaturated fats, and many of them, such as omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, are essential to heart health but aren't produced by the body naturally. In fact, there's evidence that suggests consuming 1 1/2 tablespoons of canola oil per day may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease [source: WebMD]. Canola oil may also help lower your blood pressure.

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Don't be deterred from eating canola oil because you've heard rumors that it's derived from the rapeseed plant. The rapeseed plant contains excessive amounts of erucic acid, which is toxic to humans. The truth of the matter is that canola oil is made from the seeds of the canola plant, which does contain trace amounts of erucic acid, but not nearly enough to hurt anyone [source: WebMD].

Cottage cheese probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind when you think of spreads, but there's no reason you can't smear some onto toast or a bagel. Cottage cheese is extremely filling and is low in calories and high in protein.

Like all cheeses, cottage cheese contains tyrosine, an amino acid that reduces stress and can improve mood and mental alertness [source: WebMD]. Studies have also shown that tyrosine can help relieve anxiety and depression [source: Maier]. Some research even claims that it's a natural aphrodisiac.

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Cottage cheese mixes well with just about anything, so it's easy to change the taste of this unique spread without significantly increasing its calorie content. Try topping it with some blueberries, peaches or bananas for a fruity treat, or you could even sprinkle some freshly ground black pepper onto cottage cheese for a slightly spicy kick.

This gnarly little root is a punchy spice.
This gnarly little root is a punchy spice.
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Ginger's numerous medicinal properties have made it a popular spice in many parts of the world for hundreds of years. Ginger has been credited with solving a variety of digestive ailments, including stomachaches and diarrhea. Like garlic, ginger can be used as an effective antiflatulent. It's been proven to increase circulation, which is beneficial for a variety of menstrual, circulatory and heart problems. Ginger can also treat nausea, arthritis, migraine headaches and sore throats [source: Smith].

However, ginger doesn't help everybody. Many people have found that this hot little spice increases stomach pains instead of resolving them, and research has indicated that ginger may actually prevent normal blood clotting in some people [source: Rinzler]. Therefore, those who take blood-thinning medication may want to stay clear of this powerful spice.

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You've got a lot of options if you do want to start incorporating some ginger into your meals. Try dunking a few slices of fresh, peeled ginger into boiling water for a healthy homemade tea, or mix some minced ginger in with beef or chicken for a spicy stir-fry. For a dietary splurge, use the spice to bake ginger cookies.

You could make the argument that olive oil isn't quite as good for you as canola oil. After all, it contains more saturated fat than canola oil (approximately 15 percent saturated fat compared to canola's 7 percent) [source: WebMD]. However, olive oil has one thing that makes it infinitely more versatile than its canola cousin: taste.

Canola oil's bland flavor limits it exclusively to cooking, whereas olive oil's unique taste allows it to stand in as a replacement for butter, margarine or any other butter alternative. You can even use olive oil in place of a fattening salad dressing. Of course, olive oil is also great for cooking and enhances the flavor of many recipes, though it loses some of its beneficial properties when it's heated.

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Like canola oil, olive oil contains monosaturated fat, which lowers your low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad" cholesterol. Lower cholesterol levels reduce your risk of heart disease, which remains the leading cause of death in the United States [source: Heron et al]. It's also believed that olive oil can help lower blood pressure and increase the number of natural enzymes that block some cancer cells and carcinogens [sources: Collins, DeNoon].

Rethink cinnamon: It's not just for sticky buns and giant soft pretzels.
Rethink cinnamon: It's not just for sticky buns and giant soft pretzels.
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Although the scent of cinnamon causes many of us to salivate with thoughts of baked sweet rolls, cookies and other delectable treats, the truth is this spice is actually quite good for you (sans fatty baked goods, of course). Cinnamon comes from the dried bark of the tropical laurel tree, and it's one of the most popular and beneficial spices in the world.

Cinnamon has long been known to be an effective antiflatulent, but it's far more than a pleasant-smelling gas suppressant. It has been proven to increase circulation, especially in the abdomen, and can cure or improve a host of digestive and abdominal issues, from cramping to constipation. Cinnamon also naturally relieves joint pain.

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The spice's most impressive curative property is the ability to save lives. Studies have shown cinnamon lowers cholesterol, triglyceride levels and blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes. Additionally, cinnamon contains antioxidants that can improve artery health, and regular consumption of the spice may lower a person's chances of contracting cardiovascular disease [source: Women's Health].

Cinnamon is a very versatile spice. It can improve the taste of anything from ice cream to chicken and can even add a delicious jolt to your morning coffee. Try adding a teaspoon of cinnamon to the coffee grounds before you brew a pot -- it's as good as anything you can buy from a coffee shop and is much less expensive.

Let's get this out of the way: Peanut butter is loaded with fat and calories. In fact, one cup of peanut butter contains more than 1,500 calories, more than 1,000 of which are fat, probably making it one of the most caloric foods you have in your kitchen. But, believe it or not, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The great thing about peanut butter is that a little goes a long way. Although peanut butter is extremely caloric, it's also exceptionally high in nutritional value. What's more, you don't have to eat very much of it because it's extremely filling. In fact, some claim that despite its high calorie content, peanut butter can actually help dieters lose weight [source: Callahan].

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Almost all the fat in peanut butter is monounsaturated, so it's good for you and can even help lower your cholesterol and blood pressure. Peanut butter is also high in fiber and protein, making it a perfect food to keep your body healthy, regulated and strong.

It's incredibly easy to add peanut butter to your diet. You can spread it over a sliced banana for a healthy snack, or use it to top crackers for a delicious appetizer. Of course, you can never go wrong with a classic PB&J, but you can also replace the jelly with honey for an entirely different -- but just as tasty -- sandwich.

A little bit of turmeric goes a long way in cooking.
A little bit of turmeric goes a long way in cooking.
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Even if you've never heard of turmeric, chances are you've consumed it at least once or twice over the course of your life. It's a frequent ingredient in Indian and Middle Eastern foods -- it's the yellow spice that flavors both curry and mustard. Turmeric plays an important role in traditional Indian medicine and has been used for a variety of medicinal purposes for hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of years.

Turmeric's benefits are as diverse as they are numerous. It can cure bladder infections and diarrhea, help improve liver function and lower cholesterol. Some believe that turmeric speeds up the metabolism, which can greatly enhance dieters' weight loss. There's evidence that suggests turmeric can be used to slow down the advance of Alzheimer's disease and the growth of certain cancers. There are even ongoing tests to see if this fragrant yellow spice can help treat HIV.

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Despite the fact that turmeric is an essential ingredient in two highly flavorful foods -- curry and mustard -- it can be added in small amounts to eggs, rice and chili without noticeably affecting the taste of the meal. Because it is a pungent spice, a little goes a long way, so use a light hand when incorporating turmeric into your diet.

If its advocates are to be believed, coconut oil is one of the healthiest foods you can eat. It may contain the highest level of saturated fat of any variety of oil, but it's not just any type of saturated fat. It consists of medium-chain triglycerides, which are much easier on your body than the long-chain fatty acids found in other saturated fats, and may, in fact, encourage weight loss.

Many people swear by coconut oil's curative, regenerative properties. It's often used to alleviate asthma symptoms and has even been credited with improving the lives of people living with autism. Some dieters use coconut oil as an appetite suppressant, and anecdotal evidence suggests it's a cure for heartburn and acid reflux. Coconut oil is frequently used as a topical treatment for wounds and back pain. But here's the rub: There hasn't been enough research done to validate many of these claims, so use coconut oil with discretion.

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Coconut oil can be used as a substitute for any type of cooking oil. Like olive oil, it also makes a great salad dressing or topping for bread. Try mixing it into coffee or tea as a flavorful additive.

It's natural to love butter, which is all-natural.
It's natural to love butter, which is all-natural.
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That's right -- No. 1 on our list of spices, spreads and oils for your healthy kitchen is butter. It might not seem like the most obvious choice, but before you start touting the virtue of margarine, read on to learn why butter is the only real deal in a world of alternative spreads.

People have been making butter for hundreds of years, and, after all that time, not much has changed. Butter is made from cream and sometimes salt. Compare that to the multitude of hydrogenated oils and other artificial ingredients found in margarine and butter alternatives. More importantly, butter and margarine contain the same amount of calories and fat grams, though, unlike margarine, butter contains no trans fats.

Still, just because these delicious yellow bars are all-natural doesn't mean they're good for you. There's a reason butter's gotten such a bad rap, as it's loaded with saturated fat, cholesterol and calories, so use it in moderation. It's OK to spread it on your bread or add a pat to a baked potato. Just remember that when it comes to butter, a dab is always better than a slab.

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Sources

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  • American Heart Association. "Omega-6 fatty Acids: Make Them a Part of Heart-Healthy Eating." Jan. 27, 2009. (Nov. 28, 2009).http://americanheart.mediaroom.com/index.php?s=43&item=650
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