Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Herbs Add More than Just Flavor

If you’re someone who adds herbs to your dishes on a regular basis, you likely do so for the flavors they add to food.  What you may not realize, though, is that when used even in small amounts, many herbs have powerful health benefits, whether they’re used fresh or dried.  

The herbs mentioned here are some of the most beneficial, are relatively easy to grow, or are readily available in most supermarkets:


Parsley is probably one of the most widely used herbs to garnish a dish. It is also a practical tool for cleansing the palate and freshening the breath after eating, so in that way, it plays multiple roles on the plate.  However, limiting parsley in the diet to a sprig at the end of a meal greatly limits its true health benefits as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-carcinogenic, and digestive aid.  

Just two tablespoons of fresh parsley provide 1.5 times the recommended daily value for vitamin K, high amounts of vitamins A and C, as well as folate and iron.  In addition, one of its volatile oils, myristicin, also supports glutathione, a major antioxidant that works to detoxify the body. 

Parsley is one herb that tends to lose its flavor when dried, so fresh is best.  To incorporate more parsley into the diet, add it to scrambled eggs or omelets, sprinkle it onto grain dishes near the end of cooking, flavor sautéed vegetables, juice it, include it in soups and stews, mix it into salads and use it in your favorite pesto recipe.  This chicken soup recipe includes a wonderful pesto as a garnish made with parsley, garlic, and basil.


Oregano is another herb that acts as an anti-inflammatory, an antioxidant, and an antibacterial agent.  What also may surprise you is that its antioxidant capacity is actually greater than blueberries thanks in part to two volatile oils, thymol and rosmarinic acid.  Even dried, oregano is a good source of vitamin K, manganese and iron and also provides calcium and vitamins A and C.  It also provides fiber, and don’t forget, green herbs like oregano and parsley are sources of chlorophyll, which helps to purify the blood.

To add it to the diet, combine oregano with other fresh herbs in egg dishes, add it to sauces and soups, mix it into vegetables, and use it in marinades and dressings. Here is a quick recipe for red bell pepper, spinach and goat cheese salad with a simple oregano dressing.


Who does not love the smell of fresh garlic in a simmering pot on the stove?  Garlic is a powerful antibacterial, it also exhibits antiviral and antifungal properties and can be used to fight and prevent a cold.  As an anti-inflammatory, it has been shown to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease by reducing the oxidative damage done to blood vessel walls, lowering the accumulation of plaque. 

When using garlic, it should be crushed or chopped and allowed to sit for a few minutes for the conversion of alliin to allicin, one of its main, active ingredients.  Although some people may not be able to tolerate the heat of raw garlic, it’s best to eat it as raw as possible to get the most of its health benefits.  I like to add it to a dish at the end of cooking so that it just warms through.  Still, it is also wonderful roasted in the oven or sautéed in dishes. 

Garlic can be minced and added into dressings and marinades, included in sauces and soups, the bulbs roasted whole then spread onto bread, and soaked in oil to flavor it.  The tender shoots, or scapes can also be used any way that garlic is prepared.


Ginger is probably best known for treating conditions such as motion sickness, nausea and upset stomach.  It is also used to relieve gas, diarrhea, and loss of appetite. Ginger also contains compounds called gingerols that act as anti-inflammatory agents and are believed to help relieve the pain and swelling of arthritis.  Gingerols are also believed to act as potent antioxidants.

Ginger is a warming herb that can induce sweating and help fight an oncoming cold or flu.  Try making a tea by grating a small piece of ginger then squeezing the juice into hot water, or simmering hot water with sliced ginger and adding lemon and honey. It can be chopped and added to stir-fries, juiced along with vegetables, and crystallized or candied and eaten as a snack.  Powdered ginger can also be added to a variety of dishes and baked goods.  Below is a recipe for a fresh vegetable and fruit juice that includes ginger.


Maybe you have never heard of tumeric despite the fact that you’ve probably eaten it many times.  It is the culinary spice that gives yellow mustard its yellow color.   Tumeric’s main active component, curcumin, has been the focus of many studies as a therapeutic agent due to its anti-cancer, antiviral, anti-arthritic, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties.   It’s also a good source of manganese, iron, and vitamin B6.

To get more of this bitter spice/herb into your diet, add it into soups and stews, sprinkle it in eggs before beating and add it to dressings.   I recently posted this recipe for a tahini dressing/sauce that includes tumeric. 

Now that Spring is here, if you’re planning to grow a garden, consider planting herbs like parsley, oregano, and garlic, as well as rosemary, thyme, and chives.  They require very little care and are simple, whole foods that will help raise your diet’s nutritional density to the next level in a flavorful way.   

Image courtesy of Master isolated image

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