From apple cider vinegar tonics infused with chili peppers to hot teas with a gingery kick, some of the most popular health foods and elixirs out there are also quite spicy. Whether you crave the heat or need a glass of water after just smelling an extra-hot bowl of curry, you can’t deny there’s something intriguing about spice.
You can consider that tongue-on-fire flavor a sign of these spices doing your body good—because as it turns out, a lot of the compounds responsible for spices’ heat are also responsible for their powerful health benefits
Below are six of the most flavorful, fiery spices in the market, why they’re so great for you, and how to use them to spice up your diet.
A staple of Mexican, Spanish, and Hungarian cuisine, paprika is a spice made from peppers in the Capsicum annum family, which includes everything from jalapeños to poblanos to bell peppers. You can find sweet, spicy, and smoky paprika, each of which is made with different peppers to yield the desired flavor.
This spice is just as chock-full of nutrients as it is colorful. For starters, paprika contains vitamin A, which supports immune and eye health, from compounds called carotenoids. These give red and orange-y peppers their color and act as antioxidants in the body, warding of cell damage from free radicals. The peppers used to make paprika also provide some iron, vitamin B6, and vitamin E, says Kelly R. Jones, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., L.D.N.
While your average paprika is pretty mild, hotter paprikas, which are made from spicier chili or cayenne peppers, boast added benefits because they contain a powerful antioxidant called capsaicin, says Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of DrAxe.com, best-selling author of Eat Dirt, and co-founder of Ancient Nutrition. This compound gives spicy peppers their kick and benefits our bodies in a number of ways (more on that soon). The hotter the paprika, the more capsaicin it contains, Axe says.
Jones likes to cook with paprika by incorporating it into Mexican dishes, meat rubs, and salsas. “I add it to chili and taco seasonings and use it in blackening rubs for proteins,” she says. Paprika’s sweet and spicy flavor also pairs incredibly well with sweeter ingredients, like chocolate or mango.
2. Cayenne Pepper
This super spice, originally from the Cayenne region of French Guiana, is made from ground cayenne powder.
Like paprika, cayenne contains vitamin A—but this fiery spice is hotter than even hot paprika. Cayenne peppers are about 10 times hotter than jalapeños and owe their heat to a boat load of capsaicin, that compound we mentioned earlier, says Axe.
This power antioxidant supports immune and joint health, and can stimulate your metabolism and digestive system by creating heat in your body. Cayenne and capsaicin have been widely researched, and have been shown to support cardiovascular and digestive health, blood sugar, and metabolic function, per one Molecules review.
Cayenne is a staple of spicy Mexican dishes and works well with soy sauce and other Asian flavors, says Jones. It also pairs well with cacao in oatmeal and smoothies—and even cakes and cookies—for a little Mexican hot chocolate-style sweet heat.
If you can’t handle the heat, try a non-eye-watering cayenne extract supplement instead.
Habanero peppers, which are native to Central and South America and the Caribbean, hold the title for hottest commercially-grown pepper, which means they also contain the most capsaicin, says Axe. “The benefits of habanero are similar to those of other hot peppers because they center around carotenoids and plentiful capsaicin,” he says.
“Since it’s much spicier than cayenne, habanero is best mixed with creamy ingredients or fat to mute the heat,” says Jones. (Think creamy soups and spicy tahini dressings.) Vibrant herbs like cilantro, parsley, and rosemary, can also mute habanero’s spiciness. Good to keep in mind the next time you whip up a super-spicy salsa!
Ginger spice, which is made from dried, ground ginger root, originated in Southern Asia and is a staple in all sorts of Asian and Asian-inspired dishes.
Ginger gets its unique spiciness and wide-ranging health benefits from compounds called gingerols and shogaols. These compounds are powerful antioxidants and support the immune system and have a soothing effect that can benefit digestive health and promote relaxation. They also promote healthy blood sugar and circulation, says Jones.
Specifically, studies suggest gingerols can ward off muscle soreness related to post-workout inflammation and ease digestive discomfort.
Freshly grated or dried ginger complements any Asian-style or sushi dish, but it’s also an all-star in wintertime baked goods like pumpkin pie, and, of course, gingerbread.
Cinnamon is ground from the bark of the Cinnamomum tree, which is native to Southeast Asia and Africa. One of the most popular spices in the world, cinnamon is used in all sorts of cuisines and dishes.
In addition to its sweet, warm spice, cinnamon is jam-packed with antioxidants from compounds called ‘cinnamaldehydes’ and supports heart health, healthy blood sugar, and brain health. One study published in Diabetic Medicine, for example, found that supplementing with two grams of cinnamon extract a day supported healthy blood pressure and long-term blood sugar levels in people with metabolic issues.
You can easily sprinkle it into oatmeal, cereal, or yogurt, or onto baked fruit for a healthy dessert. Since the spice is so versatile, it can also be added to teas, grains, and Indian-style curry dishes. You can find cinnamon supplements in tablet or liquid form.
Curry isn’t a spice in itself, but a blend of a bunch of spices. There are two main types of curry you’ll find in the spice aisle: curry powder, which is a golden mix of dry spices native to Indian cuisine, and curry paste, which is a yellow, green, or red mixture native to Thai cuisine.
“Depending on where you are in the world, curry powder contains a large variety of spices, including coriander, turmeric, cardamom, sweet basil, red pepper, and cumin—and sometimes cinnamon and ginger,” says Axe.
Curry powder gets a lot of its health benefits from curcumin, the antioxidant compound that gives turmeric its yellow color, says Axe. Curcumin supports immune, brain, liver, and digestive health, with studies finding it helpful for digestive discomfort and people with joint issues. Curry powder tends to have a fragrant flavor and often contains some cayenne pepper, which adds a little kick and an extra antioxidant boost courtesy of capsaicin.
Meanwhile, curry paste tends to more pepper-centric, starting yellow, red, and green chili peppers for different heat levels. Curry paste packs a capsaicin punch from those peppers, and also includes ingredients like lime leaves, lemongrass, shallots, and garlic that give it its pasty consistency.
Curry powder works well in rice dishes and soups, while curry paste works best in Thai-inspired dishes, like coconut curry, and in protein and veggie stir fries. To reap some of the benefits of these spicy curry creations, you can also turn to supplements like curcumin, cinnamon, ginger, and cayenne.