The spice of life

McCormick invests in research into health benefits of seasonings

April 11, 2010|By Andrea K. Walker |

Marinating meat before grilling might reduce cancer-causing compounds produced during the cooking process.

Trading that bland, plain burger for one flavored with herbs and spices also might give a boost of beneficial antioxidants.

And blending some ginger into that iced tea could ease muscle inflammation.

McCormick & Co., the world's largest spice company, has made research into such potential health benefits of seasonings, ranging from cinnamon to turmeric and curry, a cornerstone of its business - not just a way to add zest to your picnic.

Sparks-based McCormick started its Science Institute in 2007 to help promote and study how spices and herbs can affect health, including blood pressure, blood sugar levels and muscle pain. Executives hope to soon commercialize products the company develops based on the research.

"The basic question we're looking at is whether herbs and spices at culinary levels have health benefits," said Guy Johnson, executive director for the institute, who has decades of experience working with food companies. "It's about finding simple ways to add spices to what you eat every day to get the benefits."

But like other industries that have sought to profit from health claims, McCormick's initiative also has raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest that arise when companies pay for research that could benefit their bottom line. Claims by food companies that a single product is the magical cure to certain health ailments have become all too common, to the disgruntlement of consumer advocates.

The health benefits of herbs and spices have been known for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians building the Great Pyramids ate garlic and onion to stay healthy, and prehistoric hunters used spices to hide bad flavor in food. Herbs and spices have long been a key facet of Chinese medicinal practices.

McCormick executives say they believe their modern spice venture can help make people healthier while also generating increasing revenue in the long run by encouraging people to consume more herbs and spices. The company declined to disclose how much it is spending on the research.

Run by one of the country's top nutritionists, the Science Institute funds research conducted by universities and researchers across the country. McCormick-funded research found that marinating meat helps kill cancer-causing compounds, that ginger eases pain in muscles after exercise and that eating a spiced burger helps eliminate harmful oxidants in the blood.

McCormick's science division is based in a small office within the technology and innovation building at the spice company. Embedded in the glass front doors of the institute are what it has identified as the seven "super" spices because of their antioxidant health benefits - oregano, cinnamon, ginger, curry, red pepper, thyme and rosemary.

The office is largely administrative - it doesn't include laboratories - as an intentional move by company officials to legitimize the operation. They want the work done by independent researchers in labs and universities across the country, using trials with humans.

The company has worked with Pennsylvania State University, Kansas State University and the University of California, among others. The company's scientific advisory council, which includes a chemist from the federal Department of Agriculture and an executive from the National Institutes of Health, helps decide what medical studies should be explored.

Once trials are completed, the research is printed in top nutrition and medical journals to disseminate the information, with the goal of validating the findings even further. The company said the researchers have no "obligation" to McCormick.

"This is cutting-edge science we're doing," Johnson said.

McCormick's research also is different from most of what has been done on herbs and spices in the past because it uses spices in food samples, rather than in more concentrated forms such as a pill, nutrition experts said.

In one trial conducted by researchers at the University of California, a group of people ate a single burger with spices known to have antioxidant qualities, including oregano, rosemary, paprika and cumin. Another set ate a burger seasoned only with salt. A test of their urine after eating found that those who ate spiced burgers had a reduced number of oxidized lipids floating in the blood that could have come from eating the high-fat meal.

Gerard E. Mullin, an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital, reviewed the findings of the study and praised it, calling it "real-life food as medicine." He also noted that McCormick seems to be using reputable researchers.

"I think those kinds of research studies are good to do - take the spices in real food and see if there is any difference in certain health benefits," Mullin said. "That's not the common research study one would find in the literature."

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