Boosting Flavor and Nutrients - Health Benefits of Everyday Herbs

I was putting together some information on using herbs for a client, and thought, “Everyone should know this.” So, I decided to share it here on the blog for all to see. 

Herbs (and spices, but that's for another time) are not only a wonderful way to flavor your food, they are really nutrient dense, offering great health benefits in a relatively small package. Unless you make your own food at home, you may not be getting many herbs in your diet. Yet another reason why cooking your own food is a good idea. Whether you choose to use fresh or dried herbs depends on the recipe. Most often, the flavor and health benefits will be higher in fresh herbs, but using dried is better than none at all if that's all you have. We grow a lot of herbs at home, but I always have dried herbs on hand as well, and try to incorporate them into our food as much as possible. Just remember when using fresh herbs, they can lose some of their nutritional benefits if overcooked, so add them to a recipe toward the end and avoid a lot of heat.

Most of the health benefits of herbs come from their flavonoids and volatile oils. The volatile oils contain medicinal properties, and is the component extracted to make essential oils. Flavonoids occur in varying amounts in plant foods, and are high in colorful fruits and vegetables. They provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that support healthy cell function. They also enhance the effects of vitamin C. Flavonoids, lacking in the standard American diet, have been shown to have beneficial action against allergies, cancer, inflammation, cardiovascular disease, toxic metal build-up, viruses, and more. Here are the benefits of some common herbs you can eat everyday. 

 
 

Basil

Fresh basil is one of my favorite scents. Abundant in summer, basil is really versatile and easy to use. 

  • High in vitamin K, a key factor in blood clotting and bone health.
  • High in manganese, important for bone and skin health.
  • Flavonoids provide cell protection and antioxidants reducing free radical damage.
  • Antibacterial
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Carminative properties: helping to alleviate gas and stomach cramping.

How to eat it: Basil is perfect with sliced tomatoes, garlic and extra virgin olive oil, in salads, added to sandwiches, and of course blended into pesto.

Cilantro

The leaves are common in Mexican cooking, but the seeds of the plant are known as coriander, and is one of the world's oldest known spices. 

  • Cilantro may help bind and eliminate heavy metals when eaten during exposure.
  • Antibacterial and antimicrobial: Researchers are studying its effectiveness against Salmonella.
  • The seed of the plant, known as coriander, have shown to help control blood sugar and lower cholesterol in animal studies.
  • High in vitamin A, necessary for healthy vision, growth and development, healthy skin and antioxidant protection.
  • High in vitamin C, an essential part of our immune system, manufactures collagen, a potent antioxidant and protects against cancer.
  • High in Vitamin K (see Basil)

How to eat it: Chop cilantro leaves and add to salsa, guacamole, scrambled eggs, and tacos. Ground coriander is great in curries and soups. 

Mint

The mint family of over 25 species is one of the most commonly used medicinal herbs. 

  • Mint is well known for its role in aiding digestion, and can be especially effective in relaxing gastrointestinal spasms,and relieving symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). 
  • It can help relieve symptoms of asthma and nasal allergies associated with hay fever.
  • Antimicrobial properties
  • High in antioxidants
  • Carminative properties: alleviates gas and stomach cramping.

How to eat it: add to water or tea, enjoy with fruit like watermelon or strawberries, or add to a Greek salad with cucumbers and tomatoes.

Oregano

Another member of the mint family, oregano is often used in Italian and Mediterranean dishes. 

  • Antibacterial and antimicrobial properties.
  • Contains high amount of antioxidants, ranking higher than even apples and blueberries in antioxidant activity.
  • Oregano oil can be used therapeutically for Candidiasis, a common yeast overgrowth. 
  • Oregano oil can help to support the immune system against colds and flus.
  • Contains carminative properties: alleviates gas and stomach cramping

How to eat it:  add to tomato sauce, salad dressing and homemade soups.

Parsley

Related to carrots and celery, parsley is full of nutrients but sadly is often overlooked and used simply as garnish.

  • High in vitamin K, vitamin C & vitamin A (see above)
  • High in minerals such as  magnesium, potassium, calcium and zinc. 
  • Good source of folic acid: this important B vitamin plays a key role in heart health.
  • Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties to quench free radicals and protect cells. 
  • High in chlorophyll: a blood cleanser, liver detoxifier, and great for the skin.  
  • Contains carminative properties: alleviates gas and stomach cramping.

How to eat it: often added to juices as detoxifier, it's also great chopped on top of a simple salad, in chimichurri or tabbouleh. 

Rosemary

Easy to grow, and super fragrant, this member of the mint family holds a number of health benefits. 

  • Stimulates the immune system
  • Improves circulation, including blood flow to the brain to aid in focus and concentration. 
  • Anti-inflammatory benefits, specifically shown to reduce severity of asthma attacks. 
  • Carminative properties: alleviates gas and stomach cramping. 

How to eat it: Add whole springs to tomato sauce, roasted vegetables, and soups. 

Thyme

Fresh thyme is much more flavorful than dried, and can be stored in the fridge wrapped in a slightly damp towel. 

  • Used historically in natural medicine for respiratory conditions, including coughs and bronchitis.
  • May improve brain function.
  • High in antioxidant flavonoids.
  • Antimicrobial effect on bacteria and fungi.
  • Source of vitamin C (see Cilantro). 

How to eat it:  Add to eggs, roasted carrots, mushrooms and great with white beans.

 
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I hope this inspires you to start cooking with more herbs! Purchase bunches at the farmer's market or grow your own, and stock your pantry with a wide selection of dried organic herbs. Wondering what an easy way to incorporate all these herbs would be? I highly suggest this version of chimichurri, called "Magic Sauce" from Heidi Swanson. It can be added to all kinds of things. Eggs, potatoes, a dollop on soup and veggies. Really, almost anything.  

I've copied the recipe for you here, or you can see her original post here

Ingredients:

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon fresh oregano leaves
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
2 medium cloves of garlic, smashed into a paste
1 well-crumbled bay leaf
pinch of red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon + fine grain sea salt
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Gently warm the olive oil over medium-low heat in a skillet or pan, until it is just hot. When hot remove from heat.

While the oil is heating, lightly pound the rosemary, thyme, and oregano in a mortar and pestle.

Stir the paprika, garlic, bay leaf, red pepper flakes, and salt into the oil. Then add the bruised herbs and lemon juice.

You can use this now, but the oil just gets better as it ages over a few days. Keep it in a refrigerator for up to a week/ten days max. It thickens up when cold, so if you need it in a liquid state, place it in the sun or in a warm place for a few minutes.

Enjoy!

References

Murray, M.,Pizzorno,J.,Pizzorno,L. (2005). The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. New York, NY: Atria Books.        

The World's Healthiest Foods. http://www.whfoods.com/whfoods.com.