Ever wonder how certain foods affect your body?
Do you want to know which ingredients can help support your health?
Are you looking for new creative recipes?
Welcome to our Food for Thought blog series that will aim to address these questions and more each month! Tune in for expert nutritional tips from Masha Fox-Rabinovich, outpatient dietitian and diabetes educator at Washington Adventist Hospital, and savvy cooking techniques from Randall Smith, executive chef for Adventist HealthCare.
Use of herbs and spices in cooking can have a huge impact on the appearance, aroma, and taste of a food. It’s common to use herbs and spices in cooking to flavor foods, but did you know that many herbs and spices carry with them all kinds of health benefits too? Before going further, let’s define the difference between herbs and spices:
Herbs are plant leaves and can be used fresh or dried.
Spices are roots, stems, barks, seeds, and other parts of a plant.
Though these seasonings are often discussed together, this article will focus on some nutritional qualities of just herbs. (Keep an eye out for a future blog post about spices!)
According to a 2002 study done by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, many herbs used in cooking have more antioxidant power than other antioxidant-rich foods like fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants are nutrients that protect the body’s cells from oxidative damage caused by the natural aging process as well as exposure to environmental toxins such as pollution and unhealthy diets. Numerous studies have shown that diets high in antioxidant-rich foods help reduce risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer.
Compared to nine other herbs, oregano was found to have the highest antioxidant activity in both its fresh and dried forms. In fact, gram for gram, oregano has significantly higher antioxidant activity than many antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, such as apples, blueberries, and garlic (a food that is famous for its antioxidant properties). Other herbs with high antioxidant power include dill, thyme, rosemary, peppermint, rose geranium, sweet bay, purple amaranth, winter savory, and Vietnamese coriander.
Some other nutrition facts about a few commonly used herbs:
- Dill has anti-oxidant and anti-bacterial properties, and according to the World’s Healthiest Foods Rating system, is considered a good source of calcium, manganese, iron, and magnesium.
- Like many other herbs, rosemary contains anti-inflammatory properties. In addition, rosemary contains substances that may have positive effects on the immune system, circulation, and digestion.
- Peppermint is a good source manganese, copper and vitamin C, and has been studied for its anti-cancer properties. Peppermint has also been shown to have benefits on the digestive system, often having demonstrated the ability to relieve indigestion as well as other symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
- Basil and cilantro are two other commonly found herbs that may aid digestion.
- Sage is traditionally known to improve brain function. One study demonstrated the use of sage extract to have significant improvements in short-term memory.
In addition to added nutrition:
Use of herbs in cooking may help off-set use of added salt, helping to reduce total sodium intake. On average, Americans consume much more than the American Heart Association’s recommendation of no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day. The primary source of sodium in our diets is salt, which is used to season foods prepared at home, as well as to preserve and flavor commercially processed foods. However, eating too much sodium and not enough potassium and magnesium increases the risk of high blood pressure (hypertension). Hypertension contributes to heart disease, which is the #1 cause of death in the U.S.
One way to reduce the risk of hypertension is to prepare foods from scratch and limit the use of salt (that includes sea salt, veggie salt, kosher salt, seasoning salt, etc.). Try experimenting with herbs and spices, as well as other foods (lemons, peppers, onions, etc.) to flavor foods instead.
So next time you’re at a farmer’s market or grocery store and you see fresh herbs, give them a try! Check back tomorrow for a pesto recipe using fresh herbs from Chef Randall Smith.
What foods are you curious about? We’d like to hear from you. Please share your questions in the comments section below.