A spice is a seed, fruit, root, bark, or other plant substance primarily used for flavoring, coloring or preserving food. Spices are distinguished from herbs, which are the leaves, flowers, or stems of plants used for flavoring or as a garnish. Many spices have antimicrobial properties. This may explain why spices are more commonly used in warmer climates, which have more infectious diseases, and why the use of spices is prominent in meat, which is particularly susceptible to spoiling. Spices are sometimes used in medicine, religious rituals, cosmetics or perfume production, or as a vegetable.

Because they tend to have strong flavors and are used in small quantities, spices tend to add few calories to food, even though many spices, especially those made from seeds, contain high portions of fat, protein, and carbohydrate by weight. However, when used in larger quantity, spices can also contribute a substantial amount of minerals and other micronutrients, including iron, magnesium, calcium, and many others, to the diet. For example, a teaspoon of paprika contains about 1133 IU of Vitamin A, which is over 20% of the recommended daily allowance specified by the US FDA.

Most herbs and spices have substantial antioxidant activity, owing primarily to phenolic compounds, especially flavonoids, which influence nutrition through many pathways, including affecting the absorption of other nutrients. One study found cumin and fresh ginger to be highest in antioxidant activity. These antioxidants can also act as natural preservatives, preventing or slowing the spoilage of food, leading to a higher nutritional content in stored food.


The spice trade developed throughout South Asia and Middle East by at earliest 2000 BCE with cinnamon and black pepper, and in East Asia with herbs and pepper. The Egyptians used herbs for mummification and their demand for exotic spices and herbs helped stimulate world trade. The word spice comes from the Old French word espice, which became epice, and which came from the Latin root spec, the noun referring to “appearance, sort, kind”: species has the same root. By 1000 BCE, medical systems based upon herbs could be found in China, Korea, and India. Early uses were connected with magic, medicine, religion, tradition, and preservation.

Cloves were used in Mesopotamia by 1700 BCE. The ancient Indian epic Ramayana mentions cloves. The Romans had cloves in the 1st century CE, as Pliny the Elder wrote about them.

The earliest written records of spices come from ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Indian cultures. The Ebers Papyrus from Early Egyptians that dates from 1550 B.C.E. describes some eight hundred different medicinal remedies and numerous medicinal procedures.

Historians believe that nutmeg, which originates from the Banda Islands in Southeast Asia, was introduced to Europe in the 6th century BCE.

Indonesian merchants traveled around China, India, the Middle East, and the east coast of Africa. Arab merchants facilitated the routes through the Middle East and India. This resulted in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria being the main trading center for spices. The most important discovery prior to the European spice trade were the monsoon winds (40 CE). Sailing from Eastern spice cultivators to Western European consumers gradually replaced the land-locked spice routes once facilitated by the Middle East Arab caravans.

In the story of Genesis, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers to spice merchants. In the biblical poem Song of Solomon, the male speaker compares his beloved to many forms of spice