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Use Herbs to Improve Your Health

herbsThink about the last time you cooked a meal. What kind of seasonings did you add to it? Did you go beyond the salt and pepper shakers, perhaps to some jars of herbs and spices gathering dust on your spice rack?

Many Americans limit their seasonings to regular salt and pepper. This is usually because they feel intimidated or unsure about how to use many herbs and spices. But with a little bit of knowledge and a taste for adventure, cooking with herbs is fun and easy.

You may be wondering, “What exactly are herbs? How are they different from spices?” Herbs and spices are used in similar ways, and may even come from the same plant. The difference really lies in the part of the plant from which they are harvested. Herbs typically come from the leafy part of the plant, while spices come from the root, bark, or seeds. Both herbs and spices are potent little packages of flavor and nutrition that are easy to use and easy to grow!

Health Benefits of Herbs

Herbs are a great way to add flavor and nutrition to any dish without adding extra fat, calories, sodium, or sugar. Studies show that many popular herbs and spices are sources of natural antioxidants, the compounds that play an important role in neutralizing free radicals and reducing cancer risk.

Some herbs have more antioxidant power per gram than many fruits and vegetables; although, they are typically consumed in much smaller quantities. The herbs with the highest antioxidant activity are oregano, sweet marjoram, dill, thyme, rosemary, and sage. Combine these herbs with a healthy diet that includes fruits and vegetables for even greater antioxidant protection.

There are some herbs that have been used by ancient cultures for thousands of years. While some swear by these folk remedies, there isn’t a lot of scientific evidence to support (or to debunk) them. However, a growing number are presently being researched for health properties. The most promising research shows the following results:

  • Sage may protect brain cells and help preserve memory and thinking.
  • Rosemary may help reduce headaches and prevent damage that could lead to strokes and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Garlic may moderately lower cholesterol and triglycerides, thus improving heart health.
  • Ginger is very effective for relieving nausea, indigestion, and motion sickness.
  • Peppermint may ease symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Visit the National Institute of Health website for more evidence-based information on the potential medicinal uses and risks of herbal remedies.

Culinary Uses

Fresh herbs are used in various cuisines all over the world. Listed below are 10 of the most popular herbs used for cooking as well as tips for how to use them.

  1. Basil – most often associated with Mediterranean or Asian cuisines; used in sauces, salads, soups, and sandwiches; pairs naturally with tomatoes
  2. Parsley – one of the most common herbs used in Western cooking; can go in just about any dish that needs a pop of green and a fresh taste; for cooking, use flat-leaf or Italian parsley instead of curly-leaf parsley
  3. Cilantro – very common in Latin and Asian cooking; bright refreshing flavor that some people (thanks to specific genetic differences) find “soapy”; great addition to salsas, soups, curries, salads, vegetables, poultry, and fish; flavor is destroyed by cooking, so only add to the dish after it is done cooking
  4. Mint – used in both sweet and savory dishes and often associated with Middle Eastern and North African cuisines; pairs well with lamb, vegetables, and fruits; steep leaves in hot water to make your own mint tea
  5. Rosemary – used in many cuisines; great in soups, stews, meats, and sauces; has a very pungent flavor, so a little goes a long way
  6. Thyme – important part of many European cuisines as well as the primary component of Caribbean jerk seasonings; a versatile herb that works with nearly any kind of poultry, meat, fish, or vegetable
  7. Sage – used in French and Northern Italian cooking and the traditional herb in Thanksgiving stuffing; goes well with pork, beans, cured meats, sausages, stuffing, potatoes, and cheese; very strong flavor, so use sparingly
  8. Chives – provides subtle onion flavor; great for potatoes, meats, vegetables, eggs, and dips; cooking destroys the flavor, so add just before serving
  9. Dill – used in many European and Middle Eastern cuisines; pairs well with seafood, salads, sauces, cucumbers, potatoes, eggs, and cheeses
  10. Oregano – very common in Greek, Italian, and Mexican cuisines; goes well with tomatoes, poultry, seafood, vegetables, and in vinaigrettes; often confused with, and may be used as a substitute for, marjoram

Fresh or Dried?

In many recipes, dried herbs can substitute for fresh herbs. Keep in mind that dried herbs are typically much more potent. One tablespoon of finely chopped fresh herbs is equal to about one teaspoon of dried herbs. Also, dried herbs work best in foods that need to be cooked. Therefore, in salads or other foods that do not require cooking, don’t substitute fresh herbs for dried. 

Grow Your Own

Fresh herbs at the grocery store can be expensive, and you can’t be sure how long the bottles of dried herbs have been sitting on the shelf. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just walk out to your patio or over to your kitchen window to harvest fresh herbs as you need them?

Well… you can! It’s actually really easy to grow your own fresh herbs, even if you don’t have space for a garden. A sunny window sill or patio is really all you need to grow potted herbs all year long.

Herbs that can live for several years in pots include:

  • Basil
  • Chives
  • Mint (Caution:  Mint is a prolific plant. Container gardening is best to prevent the mint from killing neighboring plants.)
  • Oregano
  • Parsley
  • Rosemary
  • Thyme

Most herbs thrive in well-drained soil and full sun conditions (at least 6 hours of direct sunlight each day). Container gardening means you can give the plants the conditions they need while using very little space. If you don’t have a space where your plants can get enough sun, try growing more shade-tolerant herbs like:

  • Parsley
  • Cilantro
  • Chives
  • Mint
  • Tarragon

Many herbs are easy to start from seed, or you can also buy young plants from your local greenhouse or nursery. Good quality potting soil is key. Regular watering is important, although some plants will vary in their moisture needs. Most seed packets come with specific information for caring for your plants. If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments below, or you can reach out to your local Extension office. (To find your local Extension office, just search [your state’s name] Extension.

Start Cooking

Herbs are a delicious and nutritious way to spice up your cooking. They provide a rich source of antioxidants and flavor without adding extra calories, fat, sodium, or sugar. They may even provide additional health benefits. Easy to use, and easy to grow; there’s really no reason why you should be eating bland, boring food any longer. Pick up some new herbs at the grocery store or at your local garden nursery today. Give the salt shaker a rest, and add some herbs!

What’s your favorite way to use herbs? Let us know in the comments below.

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About Sarah Wood

Sarah Wood is a registered dietitian with a Master's Degree in Applied Health Sciences. Currently, she is a Nutrition and Health Education Specialist with the University of Missouri Extension. When taking time for herself, she runs, travels, and creates art.

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