Healthy Cooking with Herbs: Here Are the Best Herbs for Cooking

You’ve probably never stopped to add it up, but the typical American now uses 3.6 pounds of spices annually. The per capita consumption of chili peppers has surpassed that of green peas; and chili pepper farm acreage is greater than that devoted to celery and honeydew melons.

According to the American Spice Trade Association, spice consumption in the U.S. jumped from 931 million pounds in 1997 to 968 million pounds just a year later. Given that rate of growth, we’re already consuming over a billion pounds per year.

The reasons for this phenomenon range from what retailers refer to as the “pizza boom” to a growth in our interest in ethnic cuisines and an increase in the number of immigrants from regions known for their hot and spicy foods. As people became aware of the delights of Mexican and Thai cuisines, for example, supermarkets saw the wisdom of stocking cilantro and lemongrass. But one of the most critical factors in the booming sales of both the spicier spices and the milder herbs is Americans’ growing awareness of and commitment to healthier eating.

Spicing Up a Healthful Diet

Reducing the fat in food is the number-one food-related concern in the United States, according to a 1998 survey conducted by the Food Marketing Institute in Washington, D.C. Home cooks are also anxious to keep levels of salt to a minimum. But as you remove fat and salt, you begin to create a flavor gap. High in flavor and low in fat, sodium, and calories, herbs and spices can bridge the gulf in taste-appeal, making bland, good-for-you foods like beans, whole grains, and vegetables surprisingly exciting.

Moreover, as our forefathers always knew, spices and herbs have healthful properties of their own. Ginger ale worked for a tummy upset in your mother’s era, and it still works today. But scientists are now beginning to confirm that some spices can also help stave off life-threatening diseases ranging from heart disease to cancer.

According to Dr. Ritva Butrum, vice president of research at the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C., “There is some awareness that vegetables and fruits contain the cancer-fighting substances called phytochemicals, but not many people appreciate the rich phytochemical content of common herbs we use in cooking. Phytochemicals are a major line of defense in the fight against cancer, and herbs rich in these powerful substances have an important role to play in our diet.” Scientists have found they go beyond protecting against many chronic diseases and may actively fight cancer as well.

The Healing Herbs and Spices

Eastern countries, such as China and India, have appreciated the dual function of herbs and spices for millennia. Now, Western medicine is attempting to identify and isolate the beneficial compounds in a variety of familiar substances that pack a powerful biological punch.

Bay Leaves

Bay leaves—like cinnamon, turmeric, and cloves—help to regulate the body’s level of insulin, the hormone that carries blood sugar into the cells. All four of these spices are under study as possible treatments for type 2 (adult onset) diabetes, a disease that occurs when the body produces insulin, but not in sufficient quantities to meet its needs. Right now, however, dried bay leaves aren’t a help. The sharp leaves can puncture the wall of the digestive tract, and should never be eaten.

Chili Peppers

Capsaicin, the active ingredient in hot chilies (and the cause of that burning, fiery sensation on the tongue), is so biologically active that it is now being sold by prescription, in ointment form, for pain relief. In lower doses, it is also available over the counter. In at least one study, researchers also found that capsaicin may fend off migraine headaches.

Cilantro/Coriander

Coriander is rich in coriandrol, which is believed to help combat breast and liver cancers. In animal studies, coriandrol stopped the cancer-causing mold aflatoxin from binding to DNA and triggering liver cancer.

Cinnamon

In laboratory studies, cinnamon—together with turmeric, cloves, and bay leaves—tripled the ability of insulin to metabolize glucose, the blood sugar that supplies us with energy. While some diabetics who are taking a quarter teaspoon or so of cinnamon with their morning oatmeal have reported better blood sugar control, there are no major studies to back up its therapeutic effect and it can’t be used as a replacement for regular medication. Since cinnamon can be toxic in high doses (see the section on risks later in this discussion), diabetics and others should be careful about overdoing it in their diets.

Cloves

Cloves—like cinnamon, turmeric, and bay leaves—triple the ability of insulin to metabolize glucose in the lab, thus helping our bodies burn the sugar we need for energy.

Cumin

Israeli scientists have identified cumin, an ancient spice known in Biblical times and widely enjoyed today (especially in bean and lentil dishes) as one of several spices with anti-cancer properties. When urologists at Western Galilee Regional Hospital analyzed the eating habits of patients with some kind of urological cancer (such as bladder or prostate cancer) and patients free of disease, they concluded that dietary differences were a significant factor.

Among the spices examined, cumin appeared to be the most potent cancer-preventive. While only 12 percent of patients with cancer said they seasoned their foods with cumin, 40 percent of those without cancer reported using the spice.

Similarly, researchers in India who tested the effectiveness of 20 different spices and leafy vegetables in preventing cancer identified cumin as a heavyweight in the battle to combat this serious disease. The spice greatly increased the activity of a chemical called GST, a detoxification enzyme known to protect against certain kinds of cancer. Cumin was also found to block 83 percent of the chromosome damage normally caused by a powerful cancer-causing chemical, while poppy seeds prevented 80 percent, and turmeric, 54 percent.

 

The Lore and Lure of Spices

The discovery of spices and herbs may have taken place before the dawn of civilization. These important plant products not only enhanced the flavor of food, but kept it from spoiling. They also were among the world’s first medicinal remedies. Indeed, in ancient times, people prized spices more highly than gold or jewels, and spice merchants jealously guarded their sources of the precious stuff.

Most spices come from tropical and subtropical trees, shrubs, and vines, and are typically processed from the part of the plant that contains flavorful oils. Ginseng and horseradish come from the roots of their plants, for example; saffron and cloves from the flowers; caraway and sesame from the seed; cinnamon from the bark; and pepper and vanilla from the fruit. Herbs, on the other hand, are usually the leaves of plants that grow in temperate regions.

Most of the spices and many of the herbs we use today came originally from plants native to the Far East, India, and the Mediterranean. Among the few spices native to the New World is one of today’s most popular seasonings: the red pepper from which chili and cayenne are made.

Nowadays, many of the spices that once grew only in the Far East are being cultivated in other tropical countries, and a wide range of formerly exotic spices are commonly available at a reasonable cost. It’s a good thing, too, given Americans’ insatiable demands for new ways to liven their diets.

 

Garlic

This remarkable and odoriferous condiment not only wards off vampires, it also appears to protect against elevated levels of serum cholesterol, high blood pressure, and perhaps even cancer. And substances found in garlic have even been found to have antibiotic properties.

At the UCLA School of Medicine, researchers added aged garlic extract to test tubes containing cancer cells from humans and mice. A week later, they found that the growth of the cancerous cells had diminished, while healthy cells remained unaffected.

Similarly, at Pennsylvania State University, rats fed garlic were given a chemical known to turn normal breast cells cancerous. In some studies, there was a 70 percent reduction in the number of tumors. Scientists speculate that garlic interferes with the ability of cancer-causing chemicals to damage DNA, the part of the cell that carries hereditary information.

You don’t have to risk alienating friends, family, and co-workers by dosing yourself with raw garlic. Aging garlic in vinegar or wine can drastically reduce the odor problem associated with garlic in the raw; and boiling or roasting it can make it sweet. (Sautéing garlic does not always eliminate the pungency; and frying it can give your whole house garlic breath.)

Ginger

Known to herbalists for more than a thousand years, ginger is particularly valued as a preventive for nausea. Not long ago, a group of Danish physicians tested ginger as a remedy for a type of pregnancy nausea so severe that it can require hospitalization. Clearly, the doctors were reluctant to prescribe drugs because of possible dangers to the developing baby, so they compared powdered ginger capsules (4 pills, or 1 gram, per day—about the same amount of ginger that you would get in a portion of ginger cake) with a dummy pill. All the women took each treatment for 4 days—not knowing which they were getting. At the end, some 70 percent said they felt better on the ginger regimen, and reported no side effects.

Mint

Mint contains limonene, a powerful anticancer agent that some studies suggest can block the development of breast tumors and even shrink them. Although limonene is found primarily in citrus peel, mint is a more appealing source.

Parsley

When sprinkled liberally over food, parsley adds small but significant amounts of several trace elements to the diet; for example, copper, iron, magnesium, molybdenum, and zinc. It is also a reasonably good source of calcium.

Rosemary

Rosemary is rich in carnosol, another phytochemical that’s said to help guard against breast cancer by detoxifying chemicals that can trigger cancer development. Carnosol may protect against skin and lung cancer as well. Rosemary also seems to work against the formation of carcinogens during the cooking process, according to cancer researchers.

Turmeric

Turmeric—a mild, slightly bitter, golden spice used in rice and curry mixtures—is one of the four spices that triple the activity of insulin in laboratory tests. Preliminary studies from India also suggest that two compounds in the spice—Curcumin I and II—may possess cancer-preventing properties and possibly boost the immune system.

Indeed, curcumin is used in many parts of Asia for treating a wide variety of ailments, including eye infections, blood diseases, gastrointestinal ailments, and—applied to the skin—the sores associated with smallpox and chicken pox.

And Others . . .

Decades of research link a diet rich in beta-carotene with a reduced risk of cancer and heart disease. This nutrient works as an antioxidant, possibly preventing the growth of cancer cells and protecting delicate arteries that feed the heart. Beta-carotene can be found in a variety of fruits and vegetables, but herbs, too, are a rich and often overlooked source. Among the highest in beta-carotene are basil, coriander, dill, fennel leaves, mint, parsley, and rosemary.

 

Making Spices Do The Work of Salt

When reducing the salt in your diet, you should:


  • Check your spices and herbs regularly, replacing them as soon as they lose their aroma and color
  • Increase the amount of spices and herbs in recipes by about 25 percent while decreasing salt by half or more
  • Finely crush all herbs
  • Reserve about 25 percent of the seasonings to add in the last 10 minutes of a long-cooking dish
  • Double the marinating time to ensure that the flavors completely penetrate the meat or poultry
Vibrant Combinations for Every Kind of Meal

Poultry Summer Squash
Rosemary and thyme Mint and parsley
Tarragon, marjoram, garlic [and onion] Tarragon and garlic
Cumin, bay leaf, and saffron (or turmeric) Winter Squash
Ginger, cinnamon, and allspice Cinnamon and nutmeg
Curry powder, thyme [and onion] Allspice and red pepper
Tomatoes
Fish and Seafood Basil and rosemary
Cumin and oregano Cinnamon and ginger
Tarragon, thyme, parsley, and garlic
Thyme, fennel, saffron, and red pepper Potatoes, Rice, and Pasta
Ginger, sesame, and white pepper Potatoes
Cilantro, parsley, cumin, and garlic Dill, parsley [and onion]
Caraway [and onion]
Beef Nutmeg and chives
Thyme, bay leaf [and onion] Rice
Ginger, dry mustard, and garlic Chili powder and cumin
Dill, nutmeg, and allspice Curry powder, ginger, and coriander
Black pepper, bay leaf, and cloves Cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves
Chili powder, cinnamon, and oregano Pasta 
Basil, rosemary, and parsley
Pork Cumin, turmeric, and red pepper
Caraway, red pepper, and paprika Oregano and thyme
Thyme, dry mustard, and sage
Oregano and bay leaf
Anise, ginger, and sesame Fruits
Tarragon, bay leaf, and garlic Apples
Cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg
Vegetables Ginger and curry powder
Beans Bananas
Marjoram and rosemary Allspice and cinnamon
Caraway and dry mustard Nutmeg and ginger
Broccoli Peaches
Ginger and garlic Coriander and mint
Sesame and nutmeg Cinnamon and ginger
Cabbage Oranges
Celery seeds and dill Cinnamon and cloves
Curry powder and nutmeg Poppy [and onion]
Carrots Pears
Cinnamon and nutmeg Ginger and cardamom
Ginger [and onion] Black (or red) pepper and cinnamon
Corn Cranberries
Chili powder and cumin Allspice and coriander
Dill [and onion] Cinnamon and dry mustard
Peas Strawberries or kiwi fruit
Anise [and onion] Cinnamon and ginger
Rosemary and marjoram Black pepper and nutmeg
Spinach
Curry powder and ginger
Nutmeg and garlic Source: American Spice Trade Association

 

The Risks of Overdoing It

The ancient Greeks advised moderation in all things. This is especially true when it comes to using herbs and spices, which may be irritating or even hazardous to your health—particularly in large doses.

Cinnamon

In large quantities, cinnamon can irritate mucous membranes; bring on severe digestive problems (such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, gassiness, bloating, and rectal burning), cause depression; and interfere with concentration. In some people, it prompts a strong allergic reaction.

Cinnamon oil has also been known to cause contact dermatitis in bakers who hand-knead dough. Cinnamic aldehyde, used as a flavoring in toothpaste, can cause stomatitis (inflammation of the lining of the mouth) and cheilitis (cracks and scaling in the corners of the lips).

Once affected by cinnamon, some individuals may find themselves more sensitive to other substances, including the flavoring agents in chewing gum, fragrances, and sunscreens. Cinnamates, present in some colas, ice creams, pastries, chocolates, and other candies, may produce hives and skin eruptions in sensitive individuals.

Licorice

People who eat large amounts of licorice may develop shortness of breath, swelling of the abdomen and ankles and weight gain due to fluid retention, headaches, muscle weakness, and heart palpitations. For those who are particularly sensitive, even a small amount can be troublesome. The culprit is glycyrrhizic acid, the active component in licorice, which is related chemically to several hormones. Glycyrrhizic acid can produce a whole host of biological effects, such as steroidal and estrogenic activity, potassium depletion, and muscle weakness. It can also diminish the effect of certain medications, particularly those used to control blood pressure and treat heart conditions.

Mustard

Surprisingly, mustard contains a powerful poison: allyl isothiocyanate. When mustard seeds are crushed, this potent irritant is released. Typically, it affects the stomach and bowel. In laboratory experiments, allyl isothiocyanate has caused high blood pressure in animals. Humans report severe skin and respiratory problems, coronary thrombosis (a blood clot in a coronary artery), and heart attacks from long-term, high-volume consumption of prepared mustard or other contact with the seeds. Some scientists have suggested that mustard can actually create ulcers in the walls of an artery. Allyl isothiocyanate can also be found in horseradish, broccoli, and cabbage.

Nutmeg and Mace

Like cinnamon, nutmeg is best used judiciously: a little bit is infinitely preferable to a large quantity. Nutmeg (and mace, which comes from the same plant) contains myristicin, a kind of narcotic. In excess, it can cause hallucinations. Searching for an “organic” high, some people have consumed large quantities of nutmeg, which is cheaper and more readily available than other mind-altering drugs. However, those who use it are not apt to repeat the experience. After-effects of excessive doses of nutmeg include severe and extremely unpleasant headaches, cramps, and nausea. Extremely high doses can lead to liver damage and even death.

Red peppers

Capsaicin, the substance responsible for the pungency of hot peppers, is a highly irritating substance, so concentrated that the tongue can detect it in a solution of one part capsaicin to a million parts of water. We are all familiar with the “chili effect,” the sweating and salivation that comes after eating foods high in capsaicin. These reactions may be reflexes resulting from the direct effects of this irritating substance on the pain fibers in the mucous membranes of the mouth.

People once thought that all highly spiced foods created gastric problems (one of the reasons why physicians used to treat all stomach ulcers with bland diets). Although we now know that a bacteria is responsible for most ulcers, experts still believe that capsaicin can cause mucosal damage in the stomach, including increased shedding of surface cells and bleeding. It may also—in large doses—trigger cancer.

 

Purchase, Handling, and Storage Tips

The best way to learn about spices and herbs is to actually try them. Crush a little in the palm of your hand, smell it, and taste it.
Dried herbs tend to have a stronger flavor than fresh ones, so use a third to a quarter less in your recipes.
Whole spices offer the best value and keep the longest. Black peppercorns for example, could last for years with proper care. The flavor of ground pepper, however, begins to degrade immediately after grinding. In general, you should consider replacing your spices whenever the color begins to pale or the aroma fades or at least every six months.
Buy in small quantities or share the contents of more economical, larger packages with friends. If you patronize stores that sell in bulk, ask about the age of the spice. Don’t buy if the spices are exposed to light or stored in open bins.
Never keep spices and herbs on a shelf over the stove. The heat will leach away all the aromatic oils. Be sure your spices are in air-tight sealed containers and store them in a cool, dark, dry place, such as the refrigerator.

 

Taking On An International Flavor

Each ethnic cuisine has its own unique set of flavors. This table pinpoints the spices that can transform a mundane meal into an exotic culinary experience.
Italian French Chinese Spanish
Garlic Tarragon Ginger Saffron
Basil Chervil Anise seeds Paprika
Oregano Parsley Garlic Garlic
Parsley Thyme Red pepper Parsley
Rosemary Rosemary Sesame seeds Cumin seeds
Bay Leaves Nutmeg Star anise
Nutmeg Saffron
Fennel Seeds Bay leaves Greek Russian
Red pepper Garlic Oregano Dill weed
Marjoram Green & Mint Coriander
Sage pink Garlic leaves
peppercorns Cinnamon (Cilantro)
Dill weed Parsley
Nutmeg Mint
Indian North African Indonesian
Red pepper Nutmeg Red pepper Chilies
Chilies Cinnamon Cumin seeds Garlic
Saffron Ginger Coriander Red pepper
Mint Anise seeds seeds & Bay leaves
Cumin seeds Dill weed leaves Ginger
Coriander Cloves (cilantro) Coriander
seeds & Mace Mint seeds
leaves Cardamom seeds Saffron Tumeric
(cilantro) Mustard seeds Garlic Curry powder
Garlic Sesame seeds Cinnamon
Tumeric Fenugreek Ginger
Tumeric
German Middle Eastern Mexican Hungarian
Caraway Allspice Chilies Paprika
seeds Oregano Oregano Poppy seeds
Dill seeds Marjoram Cumin seeds Caraway
& weed Mint Sesame seeds seeds
Cinnamon Sesame seeds Cinnamon Garlic
Ginger Garlic Coriander White pepper
Nutmeg Dill weed leaves
White Cinnamon (cilantro)
pepper Cumin seeds
Juniper Corander Scandanavian
berries seeds Cardamom seeds White pepper
Allspice and leaves Nutmeg Mustard seeds
Mustard (cilantro) Dill seeds
seeds & Anise seeds & weed
powder
Source: American Spice Trade Association

Twenty-Two Popular Herbs and Spices and How to Use Them

For those who want a blast of flavor without paying the price in terms of a larger waistline or a boost in their blood pressure, herbs and spices are the answer. Here is one case where it pays to experiment.

Anise. Similar in flavor to cumin, caraway, dill, and fennel, anise is native to the Middle East and Mediterranean. Usually sold in the form of seeds, this licorice-flavored spice is particularly good in soups, stews, and baked goods, and with fish, chicken, or pork.

Basil. Often paired with tomatoes, this aromatic herb has a slight licorice taste. It’s delicious in Italian-style tomato sauces, on pizza, and in salads. It also tastes good in soups and vegetable dishes and with eggs, fish, lamb, and chicken.

Bay leaves. The ancient symbol of victory and honor, bay leaves—which grow on the laurel tree—originated in the Mediterranean. They add a subtle, yet distinctive flavor to soups and stews, marinades, and roasts. The stiff, sharp leaf doesn’t soften with cooking however; so always remove it from the dish before serving.

Black pepper. America’s favorite spice is great with everything, but especially good on meat, fish, vegetable dishes, and salads.

Caraway. These dark brown seeds have a pungent aroma and taste a bit like licorice. They add a distinctive flavor to breads and other baked goods, pork dishes, and cabbage.

Cilantro/Coriander. As a flavoring agent, coriander is sold in seed form or as fresh leaves which can often be found in the grocery store’s produce section. Fresh coriander, commonly known as cilantro, is frequently used in Chinese and Mexican dishes. It can be added to sauces, salsas, and meat marinades.

Cinnamon. One of the oldest known spices, cinnamon comes from the bark of a tree in the laurel family. Whole sticks enhance hot beverages and add flavor to pickles; ground cinnamon adds savor to pork, squash, and baked goods.

Cloves. Cloves are the unopened buds of an evergreen tree native to Indonesia. Their warm aroma and sharp taste enhance baked goods, cereals, and autumn vegetables such as parsnips, squash, and pumpkin.

Cumin. This ancient spice is the chief ingredient in chili powder. It is particularly savory in casseroles, salads, stews, and vegetable dishes.

Dill. The dill plant, related to parsley, produces flavorful seeds and leaves. The seeds, with their hint of caraway, are used in pickled foods, stews, coleslaw, and savory bread. The leaves are good in salads and sprinkled on fish.

Ginger. Gingerroot is available fresh, dried, powdered, preserved, and crystallized. It is particularly well-suited to baked goods, and blends well with other spices as a seasoning for meat and chicken. Ginger also adds zip to sauces, stir fries, salads, and marinades.

Marjoram. Related to oregano, marjoram is particularly delicious in tomato dishes and with fish, vegetables, lamb, veal, chicken, and eggs.

Mint. Peppermint and spearmint are the most commonly available varieties of mint. This herb makes a tasty addition to beverages, fruit, yogurt, lamb, and vegetables.

Mustard Seed. Mustard, a spice with a distinctive, hot, musty flavor, comes in two forms: whole seeds and powder. The seeds are good in pickles and salad dressings. Dry mustard powder goes well with meat, chicken, fish, cheese, and eggs. It also adds zest to a sauce.

Nutmeg and Mace. Nutmeg is the seed and mace, the covering of the seed of a species of evergreen tree. Nutmeg is the sweeter and more delicate of the two. Both are excellent in baked goods, sauces, and casseroles.

Oregano. Similar to, but more pungent than marjoram, oregano is an important ingredient in Greek and Italian cooking. It is especially good with tomato dishes and on pizza, vegetables, pork and chicken.

Paprika. Orangy-red paprika is made from the fruit of the capsicum pepper and ranges in taste from mild to slightly hot. Cooks often add paprika to soups and stews, and sprinkle it on beef, pork, and beans; usually regarded as just garnish, when used generously it can add an intriguing new flavor to your meals.

Poppy Seeds. The rich, sweet, nutty taste of poppy seeds enhances salads, pasta, and baked goods.

Red Pepper. Pungent red pepper, also known as cayenne, should be used with discretion. It heats up soups, stews, curries, salad dressings, sauces, and of course, chili; and is especially flavorful when blended with other spices.

Rosemary. You can purchase the narrow leaves of rosemary dried, or buy a whole fresh branch of the plant. Before adding to recipes, the dried leaves should be crushed and the fresh herb finely chopped. Rosemary lends itself nicely to meat rubs and marinades, and can also be used in vegetables and potatoes.

Sesame Seeds. Believed to be the oldest plant grown for its oil, sesame is also one of the oldest spices. Its mild, sweet, slightly nutty flavor can be enhanced by toasting. It is outstanding in baked goods and sprinkled over salads, vegetables, casseroles, rice, and pasta.

Thyme. A member of the mint family, thyme is a favorite in savory baked goods, vegetable casseroles, soups, stews, lamb, poultry, and fish dishes.

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