Thai food is known for its emphasis on herbs and spices, many of which have been studied for their benefits. Other common ingredients in Thai dishes, such as tofu, seafood, and bean sprouts, also boast impressive nutritional profiles.
Here are some of the most widely used Thai ingredients and information about their nutrition and possible health benefits.
Galangal (Thai ginger). Similar in appearance and flavor to ginger and turmeric roots, galangal is often used in sauces, curry pastes, and dishes like tom yum soup. Test-tube studies show that this root contains compounds that may kill cancer cells. Human studies also suggest that galangal may help fight inflammation and relieve pain.
Thai holy basil. This herb tastes like other basil varieties but with a licorice-like undertone. It’s used in curries, fried rice, and stir-fries. Research shows that holy basil oils and extracts may aid stress management, protect against high blood sugar in those with diabetes, and exert other therapeutic effect
Turmeric. Turmeric gives curries their color and may provide health benefits related to its main active compound curcumin. Specifically, curcumin may have powerful anti-inflammatory effects and enhance brain function and brain cell creation. Other compounds in turmeric show potential to protect against diabetes and heart disease, but more human studies are needed.
Lemongrass. Lemongrass adds a fresh, citrus flavor to Thai soups and may boost your health at the same time. Rodent studies suggest that lemongrass essential oil may help protect against stomach ulcers and decrease high blood cholesterol levels, a risk factor for heart disease.
Coconut milk. Coconut milk can be found in Thai curries and soups. While the health effects of coconut are widely debated due to its high level of saturated fat, coconut milk may have benefits. A study in 60 healthy Asian adults found that consuming porridge made with coconut milk 5 days a week over 8 weeks significantly lowered LDL (bad) cholesterol and increased HDL (good) cholesterol, compared to their baseline. Yet, these effects might not apply to Western cultures.
Bean sprouts. Mung bean sprouts are used in soups, stir-fries, and pad Thais. They’re rich in several vitamins and minerals, providing over 30% of the Daily Value (DV) for vitamin K and 15% of the DV for vitamin C in 1 cup (104 grams). Vitamin K is a vital nutrient for proper blood clotting, while vitamin C is necessary for collagen production, a healthy immune system, and healthy skin.
Chili peppers (Thai chilies). Fresh and dried chilies are added to many Thai dishes for heat and flavor. Chili peppers contain a variety of plant compounds that may have health benefits, including capsaicin, which gives them their spice, as well as the pigment capsanthin, which is responsible for the color of red peppers. Some studies suggest that consuming spicy foods with capsaicin promotes fat-burning and decreases appetite, but research is mixed.
Papaya. Green papaya salad is a popular Thai dish. Papaya is rich in antioxidants, such as lycopene, that can fight reactive cell-damaging molecules called free radicals. Lycopene may exert anticancer effects and protect skin from aging and damage.
Tofu. Tofu, which often appears in pad Thai and other dishes, contains compounds called isoflavones, which act similarly to the hormone estrogen in the body. Isoflavones may improve blood sugar control and reduce the risk of diabetes. A large study in over 40,000 Chinese adults found that eating unsweetened soy foods at least once a month over 5 years was associated with a decrease in type 2 diabetes risk.
Seafood. Many Thai dishes feature shrimp, prawns, white fish, and other shellfish. Seafood is an excellent source of lean protein and provides vitamins, minerals, and healthy omega-3 fats. Research has linked regular consumption of seafood to a lower risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Thai food is made with regional herbs and spices that may provide health benefits, such as lemongrass, Thai basil, and turmeric. Other healthy ingredients, including seafood, tofu, and chilies, are also common.
Thai meals often contain a healthy balance of proteins, fats, and carbs. They also tend to feature a variety of non-starchy vegetables that provide fiber, vitamins, and minerals.