You probably add herbs and spices to your recipes without even thinking about it! While they can usually make or break your culinary creations, there’s so much more to the humble herb or spice than taste. I try to include a regular variety in our family’s diet since they have incredible health benefits that are well studied (and make food so much more fun!).
Many contain even more of these disease-fighting properties than some fruits and vegetables!
Health Benefits of Herbs and Spices
All spices originate from plants: flowers, fruits, seeds, barks, leaves, and roots. So it makes sense they would be an amazing source of flavor and antioxidants.
Many spices contain antibacterial and antiviral properties and are often high in B-vitamins and minerals. True sea salt, for instance, contains 93 trace minerals!
Certain herbs and spices are also shown to help with weight loss, appetite control, or even satisfying a sweet tooth without calories.
The problem is, most herbs and spices have been sitting on a grocery store shelf for so long that they don’t have much nutritional value left. I recommend growing them yourself whenever possible, but if you can’t, stick to high-quality, organic brands for the most nutrient-dense options.
My Top 12 Favorite Herbs and Spices
To inspire you to branch out from your usual salt and pepper rut, here’s a breakdown of how common herbs and spices can help address high blood pressure, increase heart health, lower blood sugar levels, lower cholesterol, and so much more!
Even if you aren’t a fan of spicy foods, there’s a way to incorporate these herbs and spices into your diet that you’ll love.
Why It’s Healthy: Most people have cinnamon in their spice cabinet, which is great because it has the highest antioxidant value of any spice. Studies show that cinnamon can reduce inflammation and lower blood sugar and blood pressure, ultimately aiding in weight loss. Similar to ginger, cinnamon has also been used to alleviate nausea. It contains important minerals like manganese, iron, and calcium, and its antimicrobial properties can help extend the life of foods.
How to Use It: Cinnamon tastes great in both savory and sweet dishes. Add a tablespoon to almond pancake batter, sprinkle it over baked apples, or mix some into homemade granola bars. You can even add it to chili!
Tip: When buying cinnamon, look for organic Ceylon cinnamon instead of the more common cassia variety, which isn’t as potent.
Why It’s Healthy: Basil has antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties that can help prevent osteoarthritis. It has been used in digestive disorders. This herb also shows promise for its anti-cancer properties, with one study finding that basil leaf extract can help detoxify carcinogens in the body.
How to Use It: You can add basil to practically everything savory! Fresh basil is always best, but dried basil works too as long as it is freshly dried. Try it in omelets, on baked or grilled veggies, in soups, in a marinade for meat, or sliced fresh into salads. Layered with tomato and mozzarella cheese, it makes a wonderful Caprese salad.
Why It’s Healthy: Ok, I know that arrowroot may not technically fall in the herb and spice category, but the health benefits of this cabinet staple are so great, they deserve to be mentioned here. Arrowroot powder is starchy and highly digestible, making it a great gluten-free flour alternative, especially for those with conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome. While more research needs to be done, one study revealed that arrowroot shows promise for fighting obesity and diabetes.
How to Use It: Arrowroot powder acts like cornstarch, and is a great healthy thickener for soups and dips. Use it in place of wheat flour for a roux, to thicken gravy for a chuck roast, or as a nice complement to an almond flour crust.
Why It’s Healthy: Turmeric is used abundantly in Indian foods, but is often overlooked here in the U.S. This mild and fragrant spice is so powerful because it contains the active ingredient curcumin, a potent anti-inflammatory compound that can help fight cancer, ease symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, and boost the immune system.
How to Use It: Turmeric is essential in Indian curries, but the possibilities don’t end there. Add a sprinkle to eggs, soups, meat, sauces and baked goods for a little added flair, or stir turmeric into warm drinks like coffee or this comforting golden milk. No matter how you decide to enjoy it, be sure to add a few cranks of freshly cracked black pepper to help increase the bioavailability of curcumin.
I use turmeric often, so check out my running list of recipes and even beauty uses here.
Why It’s Healthy: You probably have some healing garlic in your kitchen right now, and it’s great for so much more than its pungent role in Italian food. It is long believed that garlic can help prevent cancer, and recent research backs up this claim. Research also finds that when paired with vitamin C and a little honey, eating raw garlic is a great cure for colds and the flu.
How to Use It: Fresh cloves are always best, but powdered, minced and granulated forms provide excellent flavor. Add it to eggs, tuna salad, baked fish or any other dish that could use a little kick.
Why It’s Healthy: Ever wonder why pregnant women crave pickles? It probably has something to do with dill’s ability to soothe an upset stomach, like during morning sickness. Dill’s essential oils have been used medicinally to treat diseases in the gallbladder, kidneys, stomach, and liver.
How to Use It: Since dill loses some of its nutrients when heated to high temperatures, it is best used in raw recipes. Use it to punch up a creamy spread, like this salmon dip, or to make a salad dressing.
Why It’s Healthy: The hotter the cayenne, the better it is for you. That’s because cayenne’s medicinal properties come from its active ingredient, capsaicin, which turns up the heat when it’s more abundant. Capsaicin’s antioxidant activity fights free radicals and is beneficial for improving cholesterol, boosting metabolism, and even fighting heart disease and fatty liver disease.
How to Use It: If you’re not big on spicy food, you can still use cayenne pepper in small amounts in practically any meat, veggie or sauce. It’s available in capsule form if you struggle with the heat, but if you enjoy a little spice, you’ll love this fire cider recipe!
Why It’s Healthy: Fennel seeds are incredibly nutritious, as they’re a source of fiber, iron, vitamin C. They also have a high level of the mineral manganese, which is important for things like bone development, blood sugar regulation, and wound healing. These seeds might also help with weight loss, as one study found that drinking fennel tea helped suppress the short-term appetite of overweight women.
How to Use It: It’s best to crush whole fennel seeds right before cooking for optimum flavor. Add it to sausage, coat it over pork chops or tenderloin, or toast the seeds and add it to a fresh tomato sauce. You can even use them to make a soothing digestive tea!
If I’m not eating it fresh, I buy it here.
Why It’s Healthy: Who doesn’t love a hot cup of peppermint tea after a big meal, or the fresh feeling of brushing with a minty toothpaste? Mint is great for fixing digestive troubles and can help alleviate bloating, gas, and other IBS-related issues. It’s not just great for your belly — it could be good for your brain, too. A study even found that sniffing peppermint essential oil can enhance memory and other cognitive performance.
How to Use It: There’s so much more to fresh mint than just hot tea. Get a bunch of fresh leaves and blend up a chimichurri sauce to go over lamb or beef, create a healthy salad dressing, or make an Asian-inspired stir fry with lots of fresh basil and mint for a double whammy. You can even have it for dessert when you whip up some homemade mint chocolate chip ice cream!
Get the full scoop on why peppermint is so healthy and how to use it more around the house.
Why It’s Healthy: Oregano and its milder cousin, marjoram, are great for your overall health because they are antiviral, antibacterial, antimicrobial, and even anti-cancer. It can also help modulate blood sugar levels and relieve inflammation.
How to Use It: Chop up fresh oregano, or use the dried variety to sprinkle over soups, sauces, zoodles, bean-free chili, or any Greek or Italian-inspired dish. You can even use it to punch up a smoky chipotle dip.
Why It’s Healthy: Cumin is the second most used herb in the world after black pepper and is most often used in Mexican dishes, like tacos or chili. Cumin has antimicrobial properties and has been used to reduce flatulence. And here’s a fun fact: Cumin was a symbol of love in the Middle Ages, and was given as a traditional wedding gift.
How to Use It: Skip the MSG-laden flavor packs and make your own taco seasoning by mixing cumin with chili pepper. You can also use cumin to season soup, pickles, meats, salad dressings, and curries. Try it in this marinated chicken tikka recipe — you won’t be disappointed!
Why It’s Healthy: Rosemary is a common household plant, but it does so much more than look (and smell) nice. This herb has a high concentration of the antioxidant carnosol, which research shows have promise in fighting different types of cancer and tumors. It also contains natural anti-inflammatory agents.
How to Use It: The lemony-pine scent of rosemary nicely complements meat dishes, soups, garlicky mushrooms, and hearty root veggies. To extend its usage, try using rosemary in soap making. Homemade rosemary soap smells amazing, and it works topically as an antiseptic.
Why It’s Healthy: Thyme is a member of the mint family and is one of my favorite herbs. It contains thymol, a potent antioxidant used in mouthwash (like Listerine) to kill germs. Swishing your mouth out with thyme-infused water will have a similar effect! A diluted thyme tincture can also be used to treat athlete’s foot and vaginal yeast infections.
How to Use It: Add thyme leaves to any baked dishes at the beginning of cooking, as it slowly releases its benefits. It tastes great in Italian and French cuisine (as it’s an ingredient in Herbs de Provence). Try sprinkling it on gluten-free pizza. You can even boil your own healing thyme tea.
Why It’s Healthy: Cilantro, also known as coriander, is one of my favorite herbs. I love the way it tastes, and it has some pretty impressive health benefits. Most importantly, cilantro can help your body detox heavy metals that we encounter from things like industrial waste and agricultural runoff. This herb also contains lots of antioxidants, and can also be used to heal gastrointestinal problems, control high cholesterol, and, in traditional Iranian medicine, to help ease anxiety and insomnia.
How to Use It: We love chopped fresh cilantro on salads, tacos, and even soups, but you can also make fresh cilantro last longer and add healthy fats with this homemade cilantro pesto.
The Bottom Line
Cooking with a variety of herbs and spices is so beneficial to your overall health, and I encourage you to 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.
You can also check with a dietitian to see which herbs and spices can best benefit your personal health.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Lauren Jefferis, board certified in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor or work with a doctor at SteadyMD.
Let me know what your favorite herbs and spices are below!
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