Now that you’re finally eating enough fruits and vegetables, I’ve got some more news for you: you should probably increase your intake of herbs and spices, too. As far as I could find, Greece is the only country so far whose guidelines officially recommend “oregano, basil, thyme and other herbs as good sources of antioxidant compounds”. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them recommended in Canadian and American guidelines someday soon. Though they get a small mention in our guidelines now, as a healthier alternative to salt to flavor foods, I see herbs and spices emerging as a nutrition powerhouse in their own right.
Some of the most exciting evidence is in the area of antioxidants: a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that many herbs and spices contain, ounce for ounce, dramatically higher antioxidant capacity than fruits and vegetables.
Culinary herbs, which are the leaves of plants used in cooking, and spices, which refer to any other part of the plant, have a long history as cooking ingredients, medicines and preservatives. The ancient Egyptians used coriander, fennel, cumin, thyme, cardamom, and cinnamon, and revered garlic. Hippocrates also recommended the spices cinnamon and rosemary as part of his extensive repertoire of health remedies.
Despite millennia of experience with herbs and spices, we’re only just “discovering” their evidence-based benefits. The last decade or so has produced some impressive animal research studies, which suggest considerable benefits from these common cooking ingredients. Unfortunately, well-designed studies in humans are still few and far between.
Some of the most exciting evidence is in the area of antioxidants: a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that many herbs and spices contain, ounce for ounce, dramatically higher antioxidant capacity than fruits and vegetables. Herbs and spices probably also deserve some of the credit for the famous health benefits of the Mediterranean diet.
Unlike pharmacological medicines, which have potential serious side effects and need to be investigated carefully before being recommended, I believe that we probably have enough grounds, already, to justify increasing the use of herbs and spices in diets. Not necessarily as high-dose supplements, but certainly as natural additions to our diet through traditional recipes. Here are some examples:
Popularly used to spice up tomato-based dishes, oregano consistently comes out on top as the most antioxidant-packed of the herbs. One group of researchers found one tablespoon of fresh oregano to have thirty times the antioxidant power of an apple. A source quoted the USDA’s Dr. Shiow Wang as saying that oregano and other high-scoring herbs “should be considered as a regular vegetable”.
Basil contains unique volatile oils which demonstrate potent and wide-ranging anti-bacterial properties, most impressively against antibiotic-resistant species of bacteria such as Staphylococcus. An extract of basil leaf was also found to inhibit carcinogen-induced early stage skin and stomach cancers in mice.
Rosemary extracts have been shown to inhibit hyperplasia and tumour production in mouse skin. In a rat study, commercially available ground rosemary powder inhibited binding of carcinogens to mammary cell DNA, suggesting possible protective effects against breast cancer. Once used by ancient Greeks to improve and strengthen memory, present-day Greek students continue to burn it in their homes during exam periods.
Myristicin, which gives parsley its fresh smell, can inhibit tumour formation and multiplication in animals. Along with parsley’s other volatile oils, myristicin may give parsley the specific ability to neutralize certain carcinogens, such as the toxic benzopyrenes found in cigarette and charcoal grill smoke.
A nutritional power player (which also happens to be extremely yummy), cinnamon has been shown to decrease platelet clotting, and also has powerful antimicrobial properties against bacteria and even Candida yeast. Some studies also suggest that it may help increase insulin sensitivity in diabetics. A study published in the 2003 Diabetes Care reported that consuming 1 g of cinnamon per day reduced blood sugar, triglyceride, and cholesterol levels in a group of subjects with Type 2 Diabetes. If that’s not enough, just smelling cinnamon has been shown to increase cognitive processing ability.
Cilantro (aka Coriander)
Coriander has been demonstrated to improve insulin secretion and blood sugar control in mice, and also reduced lipid peroxidation in rat cell membrances. The volatile oils found in the leaves have potent antimicrobial properties; this is likely why cilantro has evolved into such a popular ingredient in Mexican foods such as salsa. In 2004, the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry reported that coriander may prove to be a natural means of fighting Salmonella, and further tests have found its compound dodecenal to be twice as effective as the antibiotic gentamicin at killing this nasty bug.
These are just a few limited examples, for commonly-used herbs and spices. I could write pages on this topic, just based on the findings from a few hours of research.