What are the chemicals in spices?
Posted on June 15th, 2016

Dr Hector Perera    London

In 1505 when Portuguese landed in Sri Lanka by sheer accident, they made it best by exploring on spices. They promised the King that they would safeguard the coastal areas from other foreign invaders. The King promised in return to give spices by weight of not tons but by weight of elephants. Actually there were no other invaders, even these Portuguese got landed by accident. I am sure you all know the story of Paranagiya Kotte Giya”. Our Sinhalese took them to the King to Kotte and they took seven days or more, even crossing rivers to show it’s too far away. Actually Kotte was just a few miles away from Colombo.

We just add this and that spice in cooking things such as chicken and fish curries but many of us are unaware of the health and other benefits. If we know the advantages of eating spices you will prefer some kind of spices in your food than eating fish and chips which are oily, greasy and salty. Further they are good occasionally but not on regular basis. If you have never tried any of these spices before, please make sure to check with your doctor before enjoying any of these spices especially if you are taking any medicines. Any information presented here is not intended to cure, aid, or prevent any disease.

The spices such as cinnamon have plenty of chemicals, may be around 15 different chemicals and cloves also have about 20 different strong smelling chemicals. The real chemical names are quite long and tongue twisting to pronounce. Have I got to say about the chemicals in other spices? Their chemical structures are very complicated, not easy to draw and sometimes not easy to pronounce their names as well but for information let me give some as follows. Don’t forget they also have a number of chemicals which are heat sensitive.

Capsaicinoids are the name given to the class of compounds found present in members of the capsicum or chillies family of plants.  The most common of these compounds is N-Vanillyl-8-methyl-6-(E)-noneamide, or Capsaicin. Nearly as common is Dihydrocapsaicin (Chime or VRML). These occur in varying ratios from plant to plant, from a 1:1 ratio to 2:1. Between them they typically make up 80-90% of the total capsaicinoid concentration, the rest being made up by such compounds as Nordihydrocapsaicin. (These have been isolated and analysed by HPLC and GC-MS.

Capsicum has a tonic and carminative action. The enzyme isolated from chilly is used in the treatment of certain type of cancers. Oleoresin capsicum is used in pain balms and vapour-rubs. Dehydrated green chilly or dried red chillies is a good source of vitamin ‘C\’. Sri Lankans use red chillies for a variety of cooking.

Coriander [Have you listened to the song: Bonna Koththamalli] If not why not do it today?

Another common spice is Coriander sativum seed which has a number of chemicals such as triglyceride oil; petroselinic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid. Thus, the plant is a potential source of lipids (rich in petroselinic acid) and linalool that is isolated from the seeds and the aerial parts. Not only the seeds but leaves are also used as a source of spice. It is reported that matured coriander leaves are rich in moisture (87.9%), protein (3.3%), carbohydrate (total sugar 6.5%) and total ash (1.7%). The seeds are rich source of lipids, 28.4% of the total seed weight, which may be of great importance in the food industry.


The spice we know as cinnamon is the dried bark of the small evergreen tree Cinnamomum zeylanicum which grows in Sri Lanka and southern India. The bark of this tree is often referred to as “Ceylon cinnamon” or “true cinnamon”.

This bark-like spice originates from Sri Lanka, and was originally harvested by Arabian traders from a tall tree and ground to create the powder form of cinnamon. According to the Mayo Clinic, research suggest that cinnamon might help to regulate treatment for people with type 2 diabetes. The theory is that cinnamon increases insulin action.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, Cinnamon can be used to help treat muscle spasms, vomiting, diarrhoea, infections, the common cold, loss of appetite, and erectile dysfunction (ED). Cinnamon may lower blood sugar in people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes, according to Diabetes UK. No wonder many Asians use cinnamon in the daily cooking of curries.

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum, and Cinnamon cassia), the eternal tree of tropical medicine, belongs to the Lauraceae family. Cinnamon is one of the most important spices used daily by people all over the world. Cinnamon primarily contains vital oils and other derivatives, such as cinnamaldehyde, cinnamic acid, and cinnamate. In addition to being an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic, antimicrobial, anticancer, lipid-lowering, and cardiovascular-disease-lowering compound, cinnamon has also been reported to have activities against neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. This review illustrates the pharmacological prospective of cinnamon and its use in daily life.


The antioxidant activity of a commercial rectified clover leaf essential oil (Eugenia caryophyllus) and its main constituent eugenol was tested. This essential oil comprises in total 23 identified constituents, among them eugenol (76.8%), followed by β-caryophyllene (17.4%), α-humulene (2.1%), and eugenyl acetate (1.2%) as the main components. The essential oil from clove demonstrated scavenging activity against the 2,2-diphenyl-1-picryl hydracyl (DPPH) radical at concentrations lower than the concentrations of eugenol, butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA). This essential oil also showed a significant inhibitory effect against hydroxyl radicals and acted as an iron chelator.

The little bud resembles a tiny flower used not only in Indian cuisines, but in African and Middle Eastern as well. In cosmetic uses, close is found in toothpastes, soaps, and perfumes. Indian healers have used the oils, flower buds and stems from the plant in an array of medicine. For example, clove is possibly effective in helping with premature ejaculation when applied directly to the penis. Clove oil can also help with pain when applied topically, and can help with stomach issues like gas, diarrhoea, nausea and upset stomach.

There are plenty of herbs and spices which we normally use in curries for taste point of view only but don’t forget the medicinal and all other benefits. Your comments are welcomed perera6@hotmail.co.uk

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