Most of us have herbs and spices in our kitchen cabinet somewhere and they often get haphazardly added to recipes and culinary creations. Interestingly, there are many health benefits of herbs and spices, not to mention they improve the taste of so many foods! The problem is, most herbs and spices have been sitting on a grocery store shelf for a long time, and thus they don’t have much nutritional value left. I recommend growing them yourself whenever possible, but if you can’t, always purchase high quality organic ones.
All spices originate from plants: flowers, fruits, seeds, barks, leaves, and roots. Herbs and spices not only improve the taste of foods, but can help preserve them for longer periods of time. Herbs and Spices have antibacterial and antiviral properties and many are high in B-vitamins and trace minerals. True sea salt, for instance, contains 93 trace minerals. Most herbs and spices also contain more disease-fighting antioxidants than fruits and vegetables. The problem in America is that the most potent and healthy herbs are rarely used, mainly from lack of knowledge about them, while the least potent (salt and pepper) are the most commonly used seasonings.
Health Benefits of Herbs
Here is a breakdown of the health benefits of various herbs and spices that you may, or may not, have around the house.
Most people have cinnamon around the house, but usually it’s been there for a few years! Cinnamon has the highest antioxidant value of any spice. It has been shown to reduce inflammation and lower blood sugar and blood triglyceride levels. Cinnamon has also been used to alleviate nausea and to increase sensitivity to insulin and aid in fat burning. It provides manganese, iron and calcium. It’s antimicrobial properties can help extend the life of foods.
While cinnamon is an incredibly healthy and nutritious spice, it is often hard to branch out from the most common uses of cinnamon: cookies, muffins and desserts. Other places in the world cinnamon is used in savory and sweet dishes, everything from breakfast to dessert. I’ve even had it in chili before! Our most common uses are a tablespoon added to almond pancake batter, on apples baked for dessert or in homemade granola bars. It is a great addition to savory foods and in curry powders.
I add basil to practically everything I make, from eggs to vegetables to soups. Basil has anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties and can help prevent osteoarthritis. It has been used in digestive disorders and is being studied for its anti-cancer properties. Though commonly used in Italian cooking, Basil is a versatile herb that can be added to practically anything. Fresh is always best, but dried is ok too as long as it is freshly dried. Basil can be sprinkled in omelets, on baked or grilled veggies, in soups, on meats or sliced fresh into salads. Layered with tomato and mozzarella cheese, it makes a wonderful Caprese Salad.
Arrowroot is a starchy herb that I keep on hand, especially since we went gluten free. It has an amazing thickening ability similar to cornstarch, and it can be added to soups, dips, baking etc. Arrowroot can be used in place of flour for a roux or as the main baking ingredient in a gluten-free teething biscuit for kids. It is soothing and highly digestible so it is often used in treatment for conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
Turmeric is often found in kitchens around the world, but is not commonly used in the U.S. It is a common ingredient in Indian foods, and a great addition to soups. It contains Curcumin, a cancer-fighting compound. It is more often taken medicinally in America for its ability to reduce inflammation and improve joints. For a spark of flavor, add to egg dishes, soups, meat dishes, sauces and baked foods.
Most households have garlic around in some form or another. Fresh cloves are always best, but powdered, minced and granulated forms provide excellent flavor. This is another one that goes into everything from eggs, to tuna salad, to baked fish for dinner. Studies show that just 2 fresh cloves a week provide anti-cancer benefits.
Dill has antibacterial properties but is most known for its stomach settling ability (ever wonder why pregnant women crave pickles?). It contains a variety of nutrients but loses most when heated to high temperatures. For this reason, it is best used in uncooked recipes or in foods cooked at low temperatures. It is a great addition to any type of fish, to dips and dressings, to omelets or to poultry dishes.
Cayenne has many health benefits and can improve the absorption of other nutrients in foods. It has been shown to increase circulation and reduce the risk of heart problems. Though available in capsule form, it is also a great addition to many foods. In small amounts, it can be added to practically any dish, meat, vegetable or sauce. As tolerance to the spicy flavor increases, the amount added can be increased also.
Another wonderful herb that is used in many places of the world, but is not as common in the U.S, is mint. It has traditionally been used to calm digestive troubles and alleviate nausea. Many people enjoy a tea made from peppermint or spearmint leaves, and the volatile oils in both have been used in breath fresheners, toothpastes and chewing gum. Externally, the oil or tea can be used to repel mosquito. This herb is easiest to consume in beverage form, though an adventurous cook could add it to meat dishes or dessert recipes. Herbs like lemon balm, oregano, and marjoram technically belong to the mint family, but due to their pungent flavor, are usually referred to on their own. Speaking of…
Oregano is a common ingredient in Italian and Greek cuisine, and they have the right idea! Oregano (and it’s milder cousin, Marjoram) are antiviral, antibacterial, anticancer and antibiotic. It is extremely high in antioxidants and has demonstrated antimicrobial properties against food-borne pathogens like Listeria. Its oil and leaves are used medicinally in treatment of cough, fever, congestion, body ache and illness. Combined with basil, garlic, marjoram, thyme and rosemary, it creates a potent antiviral, anti bacterial, antimicrobial and cancer fighting seasoning blend. It can also be sprinkled on any kind of savory foods. A couple teaspoons added to a soup will help recovery from illness.
The second most used herb in the world after black pepper, cumin provides a distinct and pleasant taste. It is most often used in the U.S. in Mexican or Spanish dishes and in seasonings for tacos or chili. I recommend just buying in bulk and using with chili powder to season these dishes. This will provide better flavor and save money. Plus, have you ever read the ingredients in those little seasoning packages? Hello MSG! Cumin has antimicrobial properties and has been used to reduce flatulence. It is a wonderful addition to curry powder or to flavor Mexican or Middle Eastern dishes.
Another spice mix that is not commonly used in the U.S. but you might have tasted it in Thai dishes is curry. It can have a wide variety of ingredients, but often contains turmeric, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, mustard powder, cayenne, ginger, garlic, nutmeg, fenugreek and a wide variety of peppers. With all these ingredients it has an amazing range of beneficial properties. Curry is an acquired taste, but can be added to meats, stir frys, soups and stews.
If you’ve had rosemary, it was likely on a lamb dish, but its uses are much more varied. It has a high concentration of the antioxidant carnosol and research shows it may have benefits in cancer treatment and healthy digestion and use of cholesterol. It has a pine/lemony scent and I use it most often in soap making due to its smell and ability to fight aging by rejuvenating the small blood vessels under the skin. If you aren’t ready to jump into soap-making just yet… try it on meat dishes, in soups or with vegetables. Water boiled with Rosemary can be used as an antiseptic.
One of my favorite herbs, thyme is a member of the mint family and contains thymol, a potent antioxidant (and also the potent ingredient in Listerine mouthwash). Water boiled with thyme can be used in homemade spray cleaners and or can be added to bathwater for treatment of wounds. Thyme water can be swished around the mouth for gum infections or for the healing of wounds from teeth removal. Teas made with thyme have been used to treat athletes foot and vaginal yeast infections. Thyme tea can also be taken internally during illness to speed recovery. In foods, it is often used in French cooking (an ingredient in Herbs de Provence) and Italian. Add to any baked dishes at the beginning of cooking, as it slowly releases its benefits.
Herbs & Spices Bottom Line
There are many other beneficial cooking herbs and spices and I hope to write about a majority of them in time. I encourage you to branch out from salt & pepper and try all the wonderful culinary combinations that can be made with these herbs and spices. If your local store doesn’t carry these (or others you’d like to try), you can purchase many of them online.
Let me know what your favorite herbs and spices are below!