Herbs and spices are a healthy cook’s best friend. They are excellent for enhancing the flavor of food without the addition of extra fat, sugar, or salt. But herbs and spices have other benefits, as well: They exhibit antimicrobial (germ-killing) properties, act as antioxidants, and may help prevent or decrease the spread of cancer. For centuries, they have been used for medicinal purposes in addition to food flavoring and preservation. The use of herbs, which typically come from the leaves of plants, has been traced back to the BC era. Spices, which come from the bark, fruit, stems, roots, buds, berries, or seeds of plants, started to be used widely around the second century AD. Centuries ago, people thought that herbs and spices had certain properties that benefited health. Today, scientists have uncovered just how healthful many herbs and spices are.
In one study, researchers at the US Department of Agriculture examined the antioxidant activity (the ability to protect cells against the effects of free radicals, unstable molecules that result from the breakdown of food, exposure to pollutants, or UV light) of fresh herbs grown in a garden at the Agricultural Research Service. They found that each of the herbs tested had greater antioxidant activity by weight than berries, fruits, or vegetables. According to this study, just one tablespoon of fresh oregano has the same antioxidant power as a medium-size apple. How do other herbs stack up? Three tablespoons of dill, 4 1/2 tablespoons of thyme, 7 tablespoons of sage, and 8 tablespoons of parsley all have the antioxidant potential of that medium-size apple. In addition to their antioxidant capabilities, several herbs — as well as some spices — act as antimicrobial agents in food. Clove, cinnamon, thyme, oregano, and rosemary are well known for their antimicrobial properties.
Other studies have found myriad benefits from specific herbs and spices. For instance, populations that regularly consume garlic and spices have a decreased risk of gastric cancer; cinnamon may lower blood glucose levels and improve insulin sensitivity (although this finding is disputed); and capsaicin, the hot component of chili peppers, may inhibit prostate cancer growth. In addition, ginger, which is a long-standing treatment for nausea and vomiting, may also act as an anti-inflammatory agent and has been shown in animal and cell culture studies to decrease the incidence of some types of cancer. While no one knows the optimum doses of herbs and spices to achieve these benefits, it is reasonable to conclude that as with fruits and vegetables, regular consumption is best — but any amount is better than none at all.
In addition to the aforementioned health benefits of herbs and spices, marinating meat, pork, poultry, and fish in a marinade that is rich in herbs and spices prior to grilling may decrease the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs), cancer-causing compounds that are produced in meat cooked at high temperatures. You can make your own marinade from any combination of the following: oregano, red chili pepper, garlic, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, rosemary, and thyme. (Other tricks to decrease the formation of HCAs include cooking your meat longer at a lower temperature or starting to cook it in the microwave and then transferring it to the grill; not allowing meat to blacken or char; and wrapping meat in foil for grilling.)
Shopping and storing
Many people enjoy the taste of fresh herbs in cooking. For the freshest herbs, try growing your own — either in a garden, in large pots outdoors, or indoors near a sunny window. Most herb plants require at least six hours of sun a day. If growing your own isn’t an option, many supermarkets carry fresh cut herbs, such as parsley and cilantro, in or near the fresh vegetable section. Fresh herbs can be stored in an open or perforated plastic bag in the refrigerator for a few days. (Another option is to rinse and dry them, wrap them loosely in a paper towel, and store them in a closed plastic bag in the refrigerator’s crisper.)