Key Ingredients: Herbs

In the July 2009 issue of Reader’s Digest, our culinary experts Bonnie Stern and Fran Berkoff bring you some great recipes and nutritional tips for healthy home cooking based on one key ingredient. July’s key ingredient: Herbs and spices!

Key Ingredients: Herbs

Herbs and spices have the ability to take your taste buds around the world. Just by changing the flavourings, you can transform your recipes from ordinary to exotic. Though herbs and spices have been around for hundreds of years, the science to support the health benefits they afford is more recent. Still, various cultures have long recognized that these seasonings provide more than just flavour to food.

Herbs Are the Spice of Life

This month, regular burgers become mysteriously appetizing with the addition of spices such as turmeric and cumin-and a splash of tahini. And herbs become a beautiful and tasty salad with green beans, goat cheese and cashews.

Flavour is even more essential when you are trying to reduce dietary fat and salt. (Many health experts suggest we cut down on the amount of salt in our food as a way of preventing high blood pressure and other conditions that can affect the heart.) Adding herbs and spices to recipes adds great flavour without increasing the amount of fat you consume-and without tacking on a significant number of calories. Plus, it’s a tasty way to reduce the amount of salt or sodium that you normally use in cooking.

What’s the Difference?

Herbs and spices are often defined as those parts of the plant used in the diet for their aromatic properties. The difference between the two is which part of the plant each comes from. Herbs (for example, basil and thyme) are the leaf of the plant. Spices are the plant’s buds, bark, roots and seeds (for example, cloves, cinnamon, ginger and coriander, respectively).

Fresh herbs make food taste like summer, whereas dried herbs have a wintry taste. Fresh leafy herbs are usually added at the end of cooking. And since their flavour is delicate, use lots.

When using dried herbs, however, be prudent-their flavours are concentrated. Add them at the start of cooking, to reconstitute them.

How-To: Buying and Storing

When buying fresh herbs, choose those that are bright in colour, with no signs of wilting or browning. The stalks should be crisp and the leaves should not be dried out, nor should they have yellow, brown or black spots.

Fresh herbs should have a clean, fresh fragrance. It’s best to buy them close to the time that you plan to use them.

Wash the herbs under cool running water; then pat them dry, wrap them in tea towels and store them in the refrigerator in sealed containers or plastic bags. Once washed and patted dry, they can also be frozen in freezer bags.

Spices (almost always dried) lose much of their flavour within a year of being ground, so buy them in small quantities and replace them every year or two. For spices such as pepper and nutmeg, it makes a
big difference to grind them as you need them, so be sure to have a good pepper grinder. A rasp
works very well if you buy whole nutmeg.

Store spices and dried herbs in airtight containers, and place these in a cool, dry, dark place, away from light and heat.

Health News: Herbs and Spices

Garlic: The healing prop­erties of garlic have been recognized for hundreds of years. More recently, sci­en­tists have been studying garlic’s potential for reducing the risk of developing cancer and heart disease. Studies have shown a link between garlic consumption and lowered rates of colorectal, stomach and other cancers. Researchers associate this link, in part, to the sulphur compounds present, which are responsible for garlic’s strong taste and odour. There’s conflicting research about garlic’s effect on cholesterol, but a recent study suggests that garlic is associated with lowered blood pressure in those with elevated systolic readings.

Turmeric: Animal studies have shown improved heart health and reduced inflammation while taking curcumin, an extract of turmeric. Other studies have looked at cur­cumin’s protective effect against some cancers, and its role in helping to offset the exercise-induced muscle damage common in runners. But these results have yet to be con­sist­ently replicated in human studies.

Cinnamon: Animal studies sug­gest that consuming cinnamon may help promote healthy blood-sugar levels. In a study of healthy volunteers with no history of diabetes, subjects were given 300 grams of rice pudding either without cinnamon or with 6 grams of cinnamon added. The re­search­ers found that blood-sugar levels in subjects who ate the rice pudding with cinnamon were reduced.

Ginger: Ginger has been used for medicinal purposes since antiquity. Most of us remember ginger ale as mom’s remedy for an upset stomach. Well, once again, mom was probably right: A review of randomized con­trol trials that measured the ef­fect­ive­ness of ginger in easing nausea and vomiting showed that, for some people, ginger can help allay sea­sick­ness, morning sickness and possibly the nausea from chemotherapy.

On Antioxidants

A University of Georgia study suggests that phenols, anti­oxidants found in herbs and spices, may inhibit the damage done by high blood-sugar levels. When blood-sugar levels are high, com­pounds called advanced glycation end prod­ucts (AGEs) begin to form. AGEs are linked to the inflammation and tis­sue damage associated with aging and diabetes. In their study, re­search­ers found a strong cor­rel­a­tion be­tween the phenol content of cloves, oreg­ano and sage and the inhibition of AGE formation.

After measuring the antioxidant content of about 1,000 common foods, researchers published a list of food products with the highest concentra­tions. Of the top 50 edibles, 12 were herbs or spices: ground cloves, oreg­ano, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, basil, mustard seed, curry powder, paprika, chili powder, parsley and pepper.

British researchers studied the effects of various cooking and storage meth­ods on antioxidant concen­tra­tions in herbs and spices. Using ex­tracts of cinnamon, cloves, fennel, ginger, lavender, parsley, rosemary, sage and thyme, they found that sim­mering and stewing significantly in­creased antioxidant levels, while gril­ling and stir-frying decreased them. Freez­ing at -4°F (-20°C) had pre­serv­ative ef­fects on antioxidant levels.


Bonnie Stern has been teaching people to have fun in the kitchen, to eat more healthfully and to nourish their families since she started her cooking school in 1973.

Fran Berkoff is a consulting dietitian/nutritionist in Toronto, as well as a columnist for newspapers and magazines, and co-author or several books.

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