Being an African child, my grandmother had an assortment of traditional herbs that she would recommend for all sorts of ailments. Growing up and learning the art of cooking I often wondered what health properties the herbs and spices I was using had? Do they only add flavour or could I benefit from adding a little bit more cinnamon to my pumpkin?
IS IT A HERB OR SPICE?
In general terms, herbs are plants with taste or smell properties that are used for flavouring. They are used in medicines and or used as fragrances. Herbs and spices are more differentiated in cooking. A herb refers to the leafy green or flowering parts of a plant, while spices are from other parts of the plant, including seeds, bark, roots and fruits. Herbs can be fresh or dried while spices are usually dried.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF HERBS
Herbs and spices are not only great as alterative to high salt containing seasonings but also have a large number of vitamins and minerals and also medicinal properties. Herbs can be anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and antibacterial and contain antioxidants. Vitamins and minerals found in fresh herbs and spices include vitamin A, B vitamins, vitamin C, calcium, copper, iron, and magnesium1.
Some great health benefits of herbs specifically include:
- Boosting overall psychological health
- Reducing the risk of cancer
- Help regulating bowel movement
- Help fight inflammation
- Can support cardiovascular health
- Help fight infections against bacterial and fungus
- Help with treating a cough and cold
- Herbs can make you extra pretty by supporting a flawless skin and promoting healthy hair1
Supplement or fresh
It’s important to note that even though herbs and spices have so many health benefits, they are not a cure for medical conditions. If you use them as a supplement for a medical condition, you may need higher amounts than the average person. Herbs used for medicinal purposes should be under the guidance of a qualified health professional.
HERBS AND SPICES WITH HEALTH BENEFITS
Let’s take a look at some of the herbs in my kitchen and their benefits
Rosemary has a strong aroma and it’s the chemicals that produce this lovely aroma that have beneficial properties. The active ingredient in rosemary is rosmarinic acid. Rosmarinic acid has been shown to prevent allergic responses and nasal congestion2,3.
One study also found that just smelling rosemary can improve brain function. People who smelled rosemary performed better on memory test and other brain functions in the study4.
Rosemary is a very versatile herb. Fresh or dried rosemary can be added to a variety of dishes including soups, sandwiches, salads, and dips.
Sage gets its name from the Latin word Salvere, which means “to save.” It has been used for its healing properties since the middle ages. Current research shows that sage may be able to improve brain function. Sage inhibits the breakdown of acetylcholine, which is a chemical messenger in the brain. This helps improve memory function and has been shown to have a positive effect on Alzheimer’s disease2,4.
Sage can be used dry or fresh. Sage has a strong flavour so a little is all you need especially if dried. Sage goes well with pork, beef, duck and chicken recipes5.
Fresh, dried, or powdered, chilies will add adventure to your food. Chilli peppers contain capsaicin, which is what makes them spicy. Capsaicin helps to reduce appetite and may have anti-cancer properties. Capsaicin is a common ingredient in weight loss products due to the many studies that show its effect. One study found that adding 1 gram of red pepper to meals reduced appetite and increased fat burning in people who did not regularly eat peppers6.
Some animal studies have also found capsaicin to combat certain forms of cancer, including lung, liver and prostate cancer4.
Cayenne pepper is a great source of capsaicin. Keep a shaker of cayenne pepper at your dinner table. Sprinkle cayenne on seafood, add to hot soups, and sprinkle it on tomato and other vegetables for salad. The uses are endless.
Cinnamon is a popular inexpensive spice, found in all sorts of recipes and baked goods. Cinnamon contains a compound called cinnamaldehyde, which is responsible for cinnamon’s health benefits. Cinnamon has a high antioxidant activity. It can help fight inflammation. It has been shown to lower cholesterol and other fats in the blood2.
Cinnamon shines when it comes to its effect on blood sugar levels. Studies have shown that cinnamon can lower fasting blood sugars by 10-29% in diabetic patients. Cinnamon can lower blood sugar by improving insulin sensitivity and slowing down the breakdown of starch in the stomach. Although it’s not a cure for diabetes, it can be a beneficial addition to the diet. The effective amount to have is typically 0.5-2 teaspoons of cinnamon per day7.
Cinnamon is sweet but very low in calories and sugar-free, can be added to almost anything, including your warm winter beverages like tea and coffee
Garlic breath is not everyone’s favourite smell but the benefits of eating this amazing herb are endless. Some benefits from the chemical allicin which is found in garlic include:
- Garlic has convincing evidence that it can lower your chances of getting heart disease
- May help stop the growth of cancer cells.
- Research shows that eating garlic regularly may help with high cholesterol and high blood pressure as effectively as a blood pressure lowering drug.
- Garlic supplementation can help fight off common sickness such as a cold2,4.
It’s important to note that allicin is formed after the cells of the garlic have been cut or crushed. So, to get the benefits you should use chopped or crushed cloves. You can add crushed garlic to pasta sauces, use it to season meat and other dishes.
Ginger is most known for its anti-nausea properties. Pregnant women all over the world have been using ginger to help with the effects of morning sickness. Ginger has a calming effect on the lining of the stomach and will help with an upset tummy.
Lab studies also show that ginger may play a role in pain management due to its anti-inflammatory properties8. For me personally, ginger does wonders for the relief of cold symptoms. A cup of ginger tea and a ginger biscuit are always on hand in winter.
Cocoa isn’t just an ingredient found in your favourite chocolate indulgence. It too is a spice! The benefits of cocoa come from the high amount of flavonoids. Flavonoids are antioxidants that have been proven to improve heart health by lowering cholesterol and blood pressure2.
You can add cocoa to baked goods and other sweet dishes.
Apart from the many health benefits mentioned, herbs and spices have one more great property. Herbs and spices are packed full of flavour and adding them to your diet makes it easier to cut back on unhealthy ingredients like salt, sugar, and fat. Some herbs and spices are available as supplements in pill form but with all food it’s better to eat them unless otherwise recommended by a healthcare professional.
So next time in the grocery store, stock up on some flavourful herbs and spices and reap the health benefits that people have been getting for millenniums.
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14988517 Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2004 Mar;229(3):247-54.Extract of Perilla frutescens enriched for rosmarinic acid, a polyphenolic phytochemical, inhibits seasonal allergic rhinoconjunctivitis in humans.Takano H1, Osakabe N, Sanbongi C, Yanagisawa R, Inoue K, Yasuda A, Natsume M, Baba S, Ichiishi E, Yoshikawa T
- (48)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3022968/ 251–258.The effects of hedonically acceptable red pepper doses on thermogenesis and appetite Mary-Jon Ludy and Richard D. Mattes Physiol Behav. 2011 Mar 1; 102(3-4):
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20418184 Ginger (Zingiber officinale) reduces muscle pain caused by eccentric exercise. Black CD1, Herring MP, Hurley DJ, O’Connor PJ