You probably already know that herbs, as natural flavoring methods, are more healthful than their artificial competitors.
But you might not know specifically how healthful those herbs are. In addition to its own unique flavor, each has its own unique wellness benefits.
In and of themselves, herbs have few calories, but are often strong in antioxidants and phytochemicals, says Lauren Blake, sports nutrition manager and wellness dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Health & Fitness Center at the Philip Heit Center for Healthy New Albany. That they make food taste better is a bonus, she says; there’s a reason gourmet chefs use them.
Lauren Blake, left, leads a cooking demonstration at the Philip Heit Center for Healthy New Albany. Photo courtesy of Abbey Brooks
“It’s the natural way that we should be seasoning our food, for sure,” says Blake.
Some of Blake’s favorite herbs to use in her recipes – and to recommend in others’ – are:
-Turmeric: Studies show turmeric may help prevent, and maybe even work to reverse, such chronic ailments as arthritis, cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease, Blake says. If that’s not enough, its bright yellow-orange color can also help make dishes look more vibrant.
“That’s a really potent antioxidant herb,” Blake says. “I really like to add it to soups, or even smoothies.”
-Cinnamon: Though not linked to any particular type of prevention, cinnamon is positively loaded with antioxidants, and can be a good thing to look for in ingredient lists.
“It’s up there with things like kale, spinach and chard” in terms of antioxidants, Blake says.
-Cloves: Half a teaspoon of cloves packs more antioxidants than half a cup of blueberries, Blake says, making it another potent source. It can be part of anything from muffins to oatmeal, and pumpkin pie spice contains it, making it popular in fall.
“I know some people who like to stir it in applesauce or use it for baked fruits like pears or apples,” says Blake.
-Ginger: Whether derived from root or powder, ginger can help steel tissues and organs against oxidative damage, which in turns helps to prevent cancer, Blake says. Smoothies and Asian dishes are both good uses for it, but the cautious diner should cast a discerning eye on ginger beers and ales, as they’re often artificially flavored and/or loaded with sugar.
“Historically, ginger has (also) been used to treat a lot of things, from colds to motion sickness,” says Blake.
Herbs can be bought fresh or dried without any real difference in terms of nutrition. Dried herbs last longer, so they can be more easily found out of season. A little goes a long way. While dry herbs stretch further than their fresh counterparts, fresh herbs sometimes taste better, Blake says.
Like fruits and vegetables, fresh herbs lose nutritional value the longer they’re kept around. Wait too long to use them, and they might get brown or slimy.
“They can last … maybe a week, or a week and a half,” says Blake.
Other herbs to consider include oregano, parsley, cilantro, dill, garlic, rosemary, basil and lemongrass. Even chilis and chili powder have high antioxidant properties, Blake says.
“There’s no herb I’ve ever heard of that’s not really good for you,” she says.
Another common place to spot herbs is in supplements, but Blake urges caution on that front.
“Some herbs, in high quantities, have interactions with different medications,” she says.
Those considering taking an herbal supplement should talk to their doctors to make sure they will not react to medications, Blake says. In addition, many herbal supplements are not regulated, so there may not be a way to know for sure what’s in them.
“I think it’s best to get your supplementation from the food you’re eating,” she says.
Herbal supplements with possible drug interactions
Via Drugs.com, an online drug information database
-Cranberry: May react with blood thinners to increase susceptibility to bruising and bleeding
-Echinacea: May slow down metabolization of caffeine, causing insomnia, headache or jitters.
-Ginseng: May reduce effectiveness of warfarin and increase risk of blood clots.
-Melatonin: May increase drowsiness in combination with alcohol, muscle relaxers, opioid analgesics and some antihistamines.
-St. John’s Wort: May interact negatively with medications including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, tricyclic antidepressants, anti-migraine triptans, warfarin blood thinners, HIV medications, and even birth control.
-Valerian: May have adverse reactions with muscle relaxants, antidepressants or medicines for sleep, anxiety or pain.
Garth Bishop is managing editor. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.