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Chris Woolmams / Catherine Woollams
The Spice Of Life

Originally published in Issue 1 2006 icon


What do I eat if I have cancer? Preparing a diet for cancer is always hard. Cancer nutrition is not the same as eating when you are well.
Here Barbara Cox, the Nutrichef, gives her personal views for your cancer diet.

For thousands of years spices have been used to cure a variety of different ailments. But more recently we´re beginning to understand that three key spices - turmeric, cumin and ginger - have significant anti-cancer properties.

The Nutrichef, Barbara Cox, tells us more

We often use the words ´herb´ and ´spice´ interchangeably, but there is a real difference between them. An herb is a plant in its own right; it doesn´t produce woody, persistent tissue and generally dies back at the end of the growing season. Examples of herbs are coriander, mint and parsley. A spice, on the other hand, can be any part of a plant that´s used to add flavour to a meal, such as the seed, the root or the stem. There are dozens of spices used widely in cooking today, ranging from aniseed through to nutmeg and on to vanilla.

There are three spices, however, that are believed to have significant anti-cancer properties: turmeric, cumin and ginger. I describe each of these in more detail below, stating its origin, how it is used, and how it is believed to counteract cancer. Recipes that incorporate each of these great spices are also provided.


Turmeric, with its yellow pigment curcumin, is the underground stem of a tropical perennial that grows in many hot Asian countries. The stem is a light brown colour on the outside but, when ground, produces a bright yellow powder. Being very cheap and colourful it has been heaped into curries for thousands of years - with very interesting results. For a long time it had been noted that people in India had relatively low rates of cancer of the oesophagus. In laboratory tests curcuminoids have been shown to kill melanoma cells.

Evidence from Swansea University now suggests that turmeric may be effective at blocking NF-kappaB, a protein linked with several cancers of the gastrointestinal tract.

Sweet Potato and Beetroot Casserole

Ingredients (organic is always best)

  • 4 medium-sized beetroots
  • 1 large sweet potato
  • 1/2 cup water chestnuts
  • 1 large onion (finely chopped)
  • 1/8 cup ginger root (chopped or grated)
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 1 teaspoon of turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1/2 teaspoon cardamom powder
  • 4 teaspoon clove powde
  • teaspoon nutmeg


  • Steam the beetroot and sweet potato.
  • After 10 minutes remove the potato and continue to steam the beetroot for another 10 to 15 minutes, or until soft.
  • Place the chopped onions in a large saucepan. After 4 minutes add the ginger and the garlic. Continue to saut until the onions are well cooked (cook over a medium-low heat so the onions will not burn).
  • When the mixture is well done, add the spices and saut over a low heat for a few minutes.
  • Remove the beetroot from the steamer, rinse under cold water and remove the skin.
  • Remove the skin from the potato and chop the potato and beetroot into small cubes.
  • Add the mixture to the onions, ginger and garlic and slowly stir.
  • Add the water chestnuts and continue to mix thoroughly.
  • You may also sprinkle freshly chopped coriander over the finished dish.
  • Serve with saffron rice.


Cumin is the seed of a small plant related to parsley but found in hot climates, especially North Africa, India and the Americas. The seeds are boat-shaped and resemble caraway seeds, but are lighter in colour and have tiny bristles. They should be roasted before being ground, but can then be used to spice up a whole range of dishes including curries, stews and grills. Cumin is very commonly used in Mexican, Spanish, Indian or Middle Eastern cooking. A word of warning, however: go easy on the cumin - half a teaspoon is ample for a family of four!

Cumin has long been believed to help people suffering from disorders of the digestive tract including heartburn, nausea and diarrhoea, probably due to it stimulating the production of pancreatic enzymes. Cumin is also believed to have important anti-cancer properties, due firstly because of its ability to neutralise cancer-causing "free-radicals", and, secondly, by enhancing the liver´s detoxification enzymes.

Cumin Chai

Ingredients (organic is always best)

  • 20 cumin seeds
  • 20 whole cloves
  • 20 green cardamom pods
  • 20 whole black peppercorns
  • 2 inch slice of fresh ginger
  • 1 pinch turmeric
  • 1 teabag decaffeinated black tea
  • 750ml boiling water
  • 1/2 cup of non-dairy milk


  • Boil the water in a saucepan. When boiling, add all the spices and watch them dance around in the water! Boil for 15 minutes
  • Add a teabag of decaffeinated black tea.
  • After 2 minutes add the non-dairy milk.
  • Strain and serve.
  • To sweeten you can add a dash of maple sugar, malt barley extract or blackstrap molasses.


A native of China and India, the creeping stems of this perennial plant have been used in Chinese medicines for many centuries. Ginger has been used in a wide variety of different products including pickles, chutneys, curries, and, of course, ginger ale.

Ginger is believed to be effective in relieving symptoms of nausea and inflammation. Preliminary studies at the American Association of Cancer Research have shown that gingerol - an active ingredient in ginger - may halt the growth of colon cancer, and it is effective in promoting positive eicosanoids and killing yeast and microbes.

Ginger Tea

Ingredients (organic is always best)

  • 1-inch piece of peeled fresh ginger
  • a cup of boiling water


  • Slice the ginger.
  • Place in a cup and add boiling water.
  • When cooled enough to drink, sip and enjoy.

Variety Really Is...

Finally, I always advise people to cook with a wide variety of different herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables. As research uncovers fresh beneficial links between specific foods and ailments it is important to remember that we all need a variety of healthy foods to supply us with the range of minerals and vitamins for the countless biochemical processes that go on inside us every day. Variety of foods really is the spice of life.

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