Spice It Up! Can Modern Pharmacognosy Halt the Pandemic?


Antioxidants, micronutrients, phytonutrients, polyphenols…who knew there were so many health-supporting compounds in everyday foods like fruits and vegetables? Well, most everyone reading Food Contact Surfaces, we would hope. But did you also know that ingredients as simple as spices such as turmeric, cumin, and fenugreek are also packed with potential health benefits? No longer just a staple flavoring in dishes such as curry or tacos, ingredients like these are revealing their medicinal properties at a time that – arguably – we most need them. Does this necessitate a switch to a diet purely of Indian or Mexican entrées? Although arguably this would not be such a bad proposition, we are fortunate in now being able to leverage the potential health-protective properties of spices through a targeted use of ‘nutraceuticals,’ ‘nootropics,’ and ‘adaptogens’ alike. And if you are unfamiliar with any of these terms, it’s time to read on…

Every morning, one of our coworkers stirs a heaping spoonful of a yellow powder into a small glass of almond milk. Sipping it alongside her coffee, the clumpy beverage does not, in all honesty, look so appetizing, but she’s not enjoying it for the taste. The concoction is a mix of  turmeric and black pepper extract with dried mushrooms like cordyceps and lion’s mane, and is sweetened with low-sugar lucuma. These ingredients are a custom blend to improve executive function and cognition, elevate mood, and generally keep her on her toes and, along with a strong black coffee, they are central to her daily routine.

But although we’ve written about functional foods, nootropics, and adaptogens in the past we haven’t looked at the specific played by spices in nutraceutical terms. In a previous article we did explore the issue of contamination in spice manufacturing but, having recently learned of the interesting concept of ‘spiceuticals,’ today’s read is focusing on a rising interest in spices as instruments of self-care and holistic health.

Of course the use of plants and botanically-based extracts is scarcely new. In a paper by Nada A. Helal of Alexandria University, Egypt, et al, the author notes that ‘Dioscorides, the father of pharmacognosy, wrote “De Materia Medica” book in 77 AD, which included 657 plant originated medicines. Hence, herbal products have been an interesting area along the human history.’(1) Equally, the oldest written document, a Sumerian clay tablet estimated to be around 5000 years old, lists 12 recipes for herbal therapies. But in our current climate where pandemic panic has brought to the fore the necessity of a more wrap-around approach to maintaining our health, the market for herbs and spices has seen a consumer uptick. Much like vitamin supplementation, the use of herbal prophylactics is proliferating as consumers seek to augment the recommended safety precautions of masking, sanitizing, and social distancing. But how have spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, or fenugreek made the transition from foods to medicinal products? Let’s take a closer look…

According to new data, some spices we normally associate more closely with the preparation of dishes such as curries and chilies are now being formulated specifically for use as nutraceutical products. Although, according to Helal, there is currently no universally accepted definition of the term, it generally denotes a class of hybrid products that bridges the gap between nutrition and pharmaceuticals. In essence nutraceuticals are ‘health enhancing products that improve mental and physical activities of the body [which are] commercialized to minimize the risk factors of various diseases.’(2) But just as we are wrapping our minds around those terms another one has entered the arena: ‘spiceuticals.®’ A portmanteau of spice and pharmaceutical, word is actually a registered trademark term of Akay Natural Ingredients based in Kerala, India. Akay notes that ‘Spiceuticals® are standardised (sic), water soluble & bio-available extracts of GRAS-listed spices with minimised (sic) taste & odour (sic) for functional applications, produced by patented and trademarked proprietary processes and natural delivery technologies.’(3)

According to the company, its range of nutraceuticals is manufactured with maximum use of automation to minimize the potential of contamination through human contact which, as we are aware, is the most common vector of contamination transmission.

In addition, dedicated plant facilities are used for the manufacture of the organic line, leveraging a suite of delivery technology that includes ‘State-of-the art [s]pray drier designs for particle size and bulk density management, high pressure homogenization systems, wide range of milling & sieving systems techniques, wide range of fluid-bed technologies [that] form the core of manufacturing facility.’(4) For the extraction of active compounds from raw materials, ‘[d]edicated batch extractors and continuous extractors and automated solvent handling systems [enable] almost 100 mT of raw material extraction per day [meaning that the] extraction facilities help us to remain as one among the leading turmeric (Curcumin 95%) manufacturer around the world.’(5) And what is more, Akay specifically makes available documentation for both full spectrum traceability of ingredients and ‘clinically substantiated structure-function claims.’ This final point is of added interest to U.S. consumers given that claims made pertaining to drug safety and efficacy are strictly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), per two congressional amendments to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act – the Sherley Amendment and the subsequent Kefauver and Harris Amendment.

So, within a commercial contamination controlled setting, how are botanical extracts derived from raw materials?

Although each manufacturer will have its own emphases, extraction processes include some number of chromatography analyses such as High Performance Thin-Layer Chromatography (HPTLC), High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC), spectroscopic examinations such as UV/VIS & Fluorescence Spectroscopy and Fourier-transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR), and the use of Tandem Mass Spectrometry to quantify resulting spectroscopic data. In terms of quality control and assurance measures, testing will include microbiological examination, toxicological testing for heavy metals, pesticides as per USP/ICH, and aflatoxins, and the presence of illegal dyes, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), or pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs). All protocols and procedures should, of course, be fully detailed in the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) protocols and accompanied by excellent current Good Manufacturing Processes (cGMP) understanding and adherence. These safety guardrails are the minimum precautions that any consumer should expect.

But why is it that substances apparently as benign as spices should be subjected to such rigorous analysis? Could this be over-kill? Absolutely not. In fact, according to an article in NutraIngredients-USA some spices may do more than just pass through the gastrointestinal  system. Cumin and fenugreek, for example, may be able to permeate the blood-brain barrier to impact both audio-visual reaction times and working memory. Quoting Nutritional Neuroscience, researchers in India have reported test data of the effects of turmeric-derived anti-inflammatory, curcumin, that demonstrate results ‘consistent with penetration of the blood-brain barrier.’(6) So, even when we take the possibility of manufacturing-induced contamination off the table, the potential health impacts of some spices are sufficiently significant to warrant a careful consideration of both their putative value and also potential danger.

Late last year, the journal Phytotherapy Research published a paper by Thomas Brendler, Ph.D, et al,Botanical drugs and supplements affecting the immune response in the time of COVID-19: Implications for research and clinical practice.’ The paper discussed ‘the roles and limitations of phytotherapy in helping to prevent and address viral infections, especially regarding their effects on immune response.’(7) Brendler’s team focused specifically upon botanicals with a ‘documented immunomodulatory, immunostimulatory, and antiinflammatory effects [including] adaptogens, Boswellia spp. [aka Indian Frankincense], Curcuma longa [aka turmeric], Echinacea spp., Glycyrrhiza spp. [aka licorice], medicinal fungi, Pelargonium sidoides [aka geranium], salicylate‐yielding herbs [e.g. cilantro], and Sambucus spp [aka elderberry, providing] a clinical perspective on applications and safety of these herbs in prevention, onset, progression, and convalescence from respiratory viral infections.’(8) In an even more recent paper published in the same journal and archived by Wiley Online Library, lead author Namita Ashish Singh reports the results of an online survey conducted into the consumption of herbal products to boost immunity in the face of COVID-19. The team’s findings showed that a ‘total of 93.6% of people [surveyed] think that spices are helpful in curing coronavirus or other viral infection as well as boosting immunity [with the majority] using tulsi drops, vitamin C, and chyawanprash for boosting their immunity.’(9) But what are the properties of these natural remedies that may potentially be so important in combatting a virus like COVID-19? Per Singh, some spices are antioxidant, antimicrobial, and antiviral powerhouses containing ‘bioactive compounds that include flavonoids, phenolic compounds, sulfur‐containing compounds, tannins, alkaloids, phenolic diterpenes.’(10) Furthermore, others contain a veritable alphabet soup of vitamins – vitamin A, vitamin B1, vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin E – in addition to zinc and quercetin, all of which are thought to support the immune system.

So where is all of this research heading? According to Singh, the use of botanicals from spices may offer a powerful weapon in the prevention of viral transmission: ‘We have analyzed that cinnamon, black pepper, basil, and turmeric play a vital role against SARSCoV2 (COVID19) as well as other viral infections, which was also supported by some other recent studies.’(11) Brendler too is hopeful that some immunomodulatory compounds ‘demonstrated properties that improve parameters of the immune response, without evidence of risk of overstimulation, and may have the potential to decrease the risk of a cytokine storm.’(12) Furthermore, certain adaptogenic substances may ‘mitigate the adverse effects of physical and psychological stress and improve immune function [thereby providing] real benefits [in the] prevention and convalescence from viral infections.’(13)

Assuming that carefully designed safety protocols are well established and heeded, this research offers a cause for some degree of optimism, albeit cautious and tentative. We should, however,  also acknowledge that there may also be a downside to consider in terms of potential side effects. Singh et al concede that some uncomfortable gastrointestinal after-effects may occur in susceptible individuals following the consumption the spices discussed, noting that ‘detailed studies about the bioactive compounds present in common Indian herb and spices and their effectiveness and mode of action against lethal viruses need to be explored.’(14) With that said, it does seem to us that anyone who has enjoyed the fire of a spicy curry or hearty taco will already be well aware of their potential – shall we say, implications – and, for COVID-concerned devotees of such cuisines, the price will surely be well worth paying.

Spices as nutraceuticals? How effective do you think they could be? Do you use botanical therapies in maintaining your own health or are you wary of such treatments? We’d love to know your thoughts!


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6806606/
  2. ibid
  3. https://akay-group.com/spiceuticals/
  4. https://akay-group.com/our-technology/
  5. ibid
  6. https://www.nutraingredients-usa.com/Article/2021/01/14/Curcumin-Fenugreek-complex-may-pass-blood-brain-barrier-impact-brain-waves
  7. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ptr.7008
  8. ibid
  9. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ptr.7019
  10. ibid
  11. ibid
  12. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ptr.7008
  13. ibid
  14. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ptr.7019