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Sunday, August 4, 2013

Are herbs healthy?

Not too much attention is paid to the nutritional contribution herbs and spices  make to our diets.  Many people have no idea if they are healthy or not, but they know they can help make food taste better.   In the nutrition class I teach, I ask students to modify a lasagna recipe to make it healthier.  One group of students took out every herb and spice – no garlic, no oregano.   When I asked why, they thought this would make the recipe healthier.   However, the opposite is true.  We want herbs and spices in our food as they not only add flavor but also nutritional value.   
So what is healthy about herbs and spices?  It actually depends on which one you are referring to because different herbs and spices offer different nutritional benefits.   A recent article in Tufts Health and Nutrition Newsletter (August 2013) outlined the health and nutritional benefits of many herbs and spices such as:

  • Oregano – offers many antioxidants.  Provides vitamin K, and the minerals iron and manganese.  
  • Basil – rich in vitamin K and a source of beta-carotene (which our bodies converts to vitamin A).
  • Parsley – rich in vitamin K and a good source of beta-carotene and a fair amount of vitamin C.   It also contains an oil called, myristicin, which has been shown to have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.  Wait staff  are often told to eat a sprig of parsley to freshen their breath.
  • Chives – a good source of vitamin C and may reduce the risk of some cancers.   Also good because chives are low in calories and low in fat so a better choice on a potato than sour cream.  (I grow chives on my deck.  When I bake a potato, I just go out to my deck, cut some chives and sprinkle them on my potato.  Very tasty and chives are very easy to grow.)
  • Cilantro – has anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties.  A good source of vitamin K and beta carotene.  Much more popular today as more people are eating Asian and Mexican food.   
  • Dill – a source of the minerals calcium, manganese and iron.  Like parsley, dill has antibacterial properties and helps fight environmental cancers.  Good to use on salmon, cucumbers, or in dishes that use basil.
  • Mint – Provides beta-carotene, vitamin C  and the minerals iron and manganese.
  • Sage – this herb may help your brain by contributing to better brain function such as improving memory.  A good source of vitamin K.

So when cooking, take time to add herbs as you are adding nutrition to your foods.  Growing herbs on your deck, patio, or back yard is easy to do.  They take very little care and easily grow in a pot.  I grow oregano, parsley, chives and rosemary.  Herbs can be expensive when purchased in a store but growing your own provides a crop all summer long.  Then if you wish, you can dry the herbs for winter.
The Tufts article also gave some cooking advice:

  •  Use fresh herbs to maximize the nutritional value and prevent loss of nutrients in the drying process.
  •  Dried herbs have a concentrated source of nutrients so contain more nutrients per teaspoon than fresh herbs.
  • If substituting dried for fresh, use half the amount of dried herbs as the amount of fresh herbs called for in the recipe you are making.

Another benefit of herbs is that they are low in calories, contain no fat, and no sodium.  So experiment with adding herbs to your food as you are “adding a nutritional punch” to your meals.

Source:  Healthy Herbs Do More Than Just Spice Up Your Meals.  Tufts Health and Nutrition Letter, August 2013.  


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