I’m a big fan of herbs and spices for good reason. They’ve been used for generations both as food and to treat all sorts of ailments, and there is plenty of scientific evidence to support their medicinal properties.
Over the past decade or so, research has shown a diverse range of health benefits from herbs and spices, that is due to their bioactive constituents, including flavanoids, polyphenols, sulfur-containing compounds, tannins, vitamins and minerals. Spices and herbs such as clove, rosemary, sage, oregano and cinnamon are incredible sources of antioxidants due to their high phenolic content and it is evident that frequent consumption of these herbs and spices is linked to a lower risk of death from cancer, ischemic heart disease and respiratory diseases (1).
There is also a growing body of research demonstrating that commonly used herbs and spices have particular antimicrobial properties i.e. they kill off bacterial, viral and other microbial infections (2). This also means they are a good way of keeping a healthy balance amongst the beneficial bacteria and yeasts that live in our gut. As a nutritionist this is of particular interest, as the microbiome really is the centre of our physical health. You can download a handout at the bottom that gives you an idea of which herbs and spices help with which kind of microbes.
Dried or Fresh?
I know lots of people who dedicate a whole area of their cupboards to herbs and spices, and use them haphazardly when cooking. But lets face it, how many of them remain at the back of the shelf collecting dust! It really does takes a concerted effort to add them daily to your food, but I promise you it is worth it.
Aim for fresh herbs wherever possible, as they retain more of their medicinal properties than dried ones. Spices are usually the dried or ground variety – so just try and find organic if you can. With herbs, you can even grow your own – even if you cheat and start with a ready grown pot and just keep it going. They look really pretty in the kitchen! Some are easier than others – I find parsley, mint, chives and rosemary good ones to start with. When you grow your own and make a connection to them, they grow according to your own needs – so will always be better than anything you find in a shop. But if that’s not possible, then just show appreciation for the herbs you have bought and this will still be beneficial. Think of all those reiki experiments, and the effects that showing love has on food and water – the more love and gratitude you hold for the foods you grow and eat, the more the energies of those foods mesh with your own energies – the Law of One in action!
With any herbs and spices – particularly the dried ones, it’s best to start with the ones you know, then slowly branch out and experiment with other flavours. It may mean actually following the odd recipe or two (yawn), but once you understand how the flavours work in cooking, it shouldn’t be too much effort. As I’ve discovered on a number of occasions, you can overdo it with some. Once when I was going through a particular cumin and coriander craze, my poor dad suffered (ever so politely) through a pretty revolting bowl of soup. So definitely its true that sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.
The Wonders of Garlic!
Probably the two top herbs and spices from my point of view are coriander and garlic – I’ll do a separate post on coriander at some point as there is much to say. But for now I’ll just mention a bit more about garlic – which most people seem to like unlike coriander! Garlic to be fair is hard to classify as either a herb or spice, as technically it’s a vegetable. However, it’s usually listed when we talk about herbs and spices and is used in tiny amounts due to it’s incredibly powerful flavour.
Garlic has always been used for both its culinary and medicinal purposes since the ancient Egyptians. Hippocrates even mentioned using garlic for many conditions, including parasites, respiratory problems, poor digestion and low energy.
So what is it about garlic that makes it such a powerful medicinal food? A whole head of raw garlic doesn’t have a strong smell. However, if you crush or chop it then you really get a powerful odour. In fact, it’s really important to crush garlic before using it. What happens when you crush it is that the cells of the plant are destroyed, which causes a release of a compound called alliin. If the garlic is left for a few minutes, the alliin will react with an enzyme to create another compound, allicin. Allicin is what gives garlic its pungent taste and smell and is thought to be responsible for its healing properties. The strong smell and taste might be off-putting for some people, but don’t forget, the strength of these chemicals is what keeps the bugs away too! When garlic is heated in cooking, or undergoes processing of any sort, some of the active ingredients are lost. The best way to use garlic is to crush the cloves and leave for 6-8 minutes and then add at the end of cooking. Of course there are issues with this, as the odour remains pretty strong. Nice if you are single, not so great if you aren’t!