by Brenda Carey
What makes food taste good? What is the secret? Have you noticed that often even after combining delicious foods, you might still say, "There's something missing to give this the fullness of flavor that I want.”? Chances are, what you are missing are the herbs and spices. Without herbs and spices, food can be bland and lifeless.
Good news—the most delicious herbs and spices in the world are some of the healthiest things that you can ingest. Herbalists have been renowned as healers for thousands of years. Nature has provided us with things that tantalize the senses and even create cravings, that destroy harmful viruses, bacteria, fungus and even prevent tooth decay! Natural herbs aid digestion, calm the nerves, wake us up or relax us. When an ailment or injury arises, any good herbalist will tell you that it’s often just a matter of choosing the right herbs (or right combination of herbs) to set things right. While almost every plant on Earth has some health benefits to humans, the ones we call “herbs” are those that have been known for hundreds or even thousands of years to be especially potent. Here are a few that you may use this holiday season. Celebrate the health benefits and flavors!
TURMERIC: You may recognize this herb as the yellow coloration found in curry dishes. Recently, it has been used widely in beverages such as tea or “golden mylk” (simply mix it with your favorite plant-milk and some Bee Free Honee and warm). The root of the turmeric plant is one of the most beneficial herbs in the world. As a long-time staple in Ayurvedic (ancient Indian) Medicine, it has been used to treat numerous diseases and conditions. It is known as the “golden goddess” in India. The most well-known biologically active constituent of turmeric is the polyphenol curcumin. The orange-yellow substance works together with the turmerone oils in the root to provide potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which helps to prevent cancer, Alzheimer disease, heart disease, and arthritis— to name a few of the diseases confirmed to be prevented or reversed by turmeric in scientific studies. (Singletary, Keith PhD , Turmeric: An Overview of Potential Health Benefits, Nutrition Today: September/October 2010, 45 :5, 216-225). However, turmeric is known to contain over 200 active constituents that work together to provide health benefits to the body. For this reason, it is best to enjoy whole turmeric root or dried turmeric as in a tea, rather than extracts (as is true for all beneficial nutrients). Turmeric has been shown to inhibit inflammatory pathways in the body. It improves circulation and encourages repairing of damaged cells. It balances bacteria in the gut, giving a boost to the immune system, helping the body extract and use nutrients from other foods. Tip: enjoy turmeric with a little black pepper to increase absorption.
CARDAMOM: This is another anti-carcinogenic herb that originated in India and has roots in Ayurvedic medicine, that is also used in cooking. It is warm and sweet, yet pairs well in savory dishes like stews and curries. It is also used in high quality teas for its medicinal and flavorful benefits. The seeds or fruit of the cardamom plant are harvested from certain plants in the ginger family. Oils are extracted or the fruit or seed is cured and dried. Fun Facts: Cardamom is the world’s third most expensive spice, second only to vanilla bean and saffron. There are two kinds of cardamom: green (also called “true” and often white when bleached), and black (also known as brown or large) cardamom.
CINNAMON: This familiar spice is made from the bark of Chinese cinnamomum verum plant or the small Ceylon cinnamon plant of Sri Lanka. This spice has also been used for thousands of years for its taste and medicinal benefits, starting with ancient Chinese, Egyptian, and European cultures. Some scientific studies have proven health benefits to blood glucose regulation. (1-6g/day for 40 days reduced blood glucose levels by 18-29-percent). Subsequent studies did not get the same results, so the jury is still out. However, Cinnamon has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol and provide potent antioxidant benefits that prevent and treat Alzheimer’s and cancer. It is known to have antioxidant, anti-microbial, and anti-inflammatory effects. It also aids in gastrointestinal disorders. (Hamidpour, Rafie, et. al, Cinnamon from the selection of traditional applications to its novel effects on the inhibition of angiogenesis in cancer cells and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, and a series of functions such as antioxidant, anticholesterol, antidiabetes, antibacterial, antifungal, nematicidal, acaracidal, and repellent activities. Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, 5:1, April 2015, 66-70.)
NUTMEG: Since antiquity nutmeg has been a highly prized spice, known for its aromatic, aphrodisiac, and curative properties. Like other herbs and spices, the assumed health benefits of nutmeg have been used for everything from stomach cramps to a cure for the plague. Studies show that it can help lower blood pressure, suppress a cough, soothe a stomach ache and stop diarrhea. In low doses, it helps to detoxify the body and stimulate the brain. It is also mixed with oil and used topically for muscle pain. It is particularly rich in vitamins A, C. and E. It also contains electrolytes (sodium and potassium) minerals (calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, zinc, and phosphorus) and phytonutrients. It is also antiseptic in nature and has been used to prevent cavities, and cure toothaches and gum problems. (Agbogidi, O. M., and O. P. Azagbaekwe. “Health and nutritional benefits of nutmeg...” Scientia 1.2 (2013): 40-44.)
GARLIC: The rock star of spices, it seems that garlic is everybody’s favorite. Allium sativum L. has been used effectively as food and medicine for many centuries. The beneficial compound that we hear about the most in garlic is allicin, which is released when intact cells of a clove are cut or crushed. Allicin inhibits a wide variety of harmful bacteria, molds, yeasts (including Candida), and viruses. It has also been found to possess cancer-preventive properties. Research has also suggested that garlic protects against cardiovascular disease because it lowers total- and LDL-cholesterol (the bad stuff) without affecting HDL-cholesterol (the good stuff). Scientists at the National Cancer Institute have also concluded that the occurrence of stomach cancer is inversely related to the consumption of garlic, onion, and other Allium species. Garlic also gives a general boost to the immune system by stimulating cell detoxifying activity. (Craig, Winston J., Health-promoting properties of common herbs. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Sep 1999, 70:3, 491-499.)
OREGANO: Cultivated for centuries in the Mediterranean area, it now can be found on most continents and is a big favorite in many types of cuisine. FYI, there is not simply one oregano plant, but rather several species that are used for culinary purposes. Origanum vulgare (aka Spanish thyme and wild marjoram), is generally the spice variety sold as oregano in Europe and the United States. Medicinal uses for oregano date back to the ancient Greek and Roman empires. Applications of the leaves were used to treat skin sores, to relieve aching muscles and as an antiseptic. Oregano also has been used in traditional medicines for asthma, cramping, diarrhea, and indigestion. In Greece, an oregano infusion is still used as a folk remedy against colds and upset stomach and to maintain general health. Oregano extracts and individual constituents have also consistently demonstrated antimicrobial actions in vitro toward food-borne pathogens (such as H. pylori, which has been linked to stomach cancer). Oregano contains several potent antioxidants that benefit the cardiovascular and nervous systems, relieving symptoms of inflammation, and modulating blood sugar and lipids. (Singletary, Keith, Oregano: Overview of the Literature on Health Benefits. Nutrition Today: May/June 2010, 45:3, 129-138.)
MINT: The mint flavor was known in Asia about 2000 years ago. It is the third most-liked flavor worldwide, liked by all people irrespective of age, gender and ethnic background. Mint belongs to a small genus of aromatic perennial herbs, such as spearmint and peppermint, distributed mainly in temperate regions of the world. These menthol flavors have been found to have potent antioxidant, detoxifying, anti-cancer, and anti-inflammatory activity. Like all green leafy plants, mint leaves also contain numerous vitamins and micronutrients such as vitamin C, K, calcium, and magnesium. (Uribe, Elsa, et al. “Assessment of vacuum-dried peppermint (Mentha piperita L.) as a source of natural antioxidants.” Food chemistry 190 (2016): 559-565.) What a tasty way to get these vitamins– from a friendly little plant that grows easily on your windowsill.