Friday, January 25, 2013

Helpful Herbs: Vanilla

Vanilla is one of the most widely used spices in the world.  When we think of vanilla we thing of mouth-watering vanilla bean ice cream, vanilla-scented candles, sugar cookies, potent little vanilla bean pods and aromatic extracts.  It's comforting and exotic at once. But did you know that this unique and universally popular spice has some potentially great health benefits?

A compound called vanillin is the main constituent of vanilla extracts. It has been studied and found to have an anti-cancer effect on cervical, breast, prostate, and colon cancers.

Anti-oxidant, Anti-Mutagen
Another main constituent of vanilla called vanillic acid is a potent anti-oxidant.  
And when combined with cinnamon, vanillin was found to be a potent anti-mutagen.

Safe for Skin
Unless someone is allergic to vanilla (which is quite rare), vanilla is non-irritating and non-sensitizing, and safe to use on skin. In fact, when skin comes in contact with capsaicin, the compound in hot peppers responsible for the burning feeling, skin cells can partially neutralize it by breaking it down to vanillin and vanillic acid, which doesn't irritate the skin.

Heart Health
Because of its strong anti-oxidant capabilities, vanillic acid is heart-healthy.  This animal study found that vanillin protected the hearts of rats who were given chemicals that induced inflammation and cardiotoxicity.  (Poor rats!)

The trouble with vanilla is that we usually eat it with loads of sugar, like in ice cream and cookies, so the pro-oxidant activity of the sugar, refined grains and dairy would likely negate the benefits of the vanilla. But if you can figure out a way to add vanilla to your diet in a healthy way, perhaps in low-carb coconut pancakes, along with other beneficial herbs and spices in an herbal tea, or in a creamy avocado and coconut smoothie, you can get all the delicious flavor and powerful punch of antioxidants that vanilla delivers.