Salt and pepper may be the most common food seasonings—after all, you’ll find them on almost every table—but after a while, they add a boring “sameness” to meals. They can’t hold a candle to the rich aromas and flavors of culinary herbs and spices.
Ounce for ounce, kitchen herbs and spices may be the most nutrient-packed of any food ingredients. Whether you use a pinch or a teaspoon in recipes, culinary spices are packed with vitamins, minerals, health-promoting oils, and antioxidant carotenoids and flavonoids. Most herbs and spices contain hundreds of bioactive compounds, including trace amounts of salicylates, natural aspirin-like compounds that help reduce inflammation.1
I use liberal amounts of spices when cooking or seasoning fish, chicken, and many types of vegetables. You’re probably familiar with some of my favorites, and combining them to further enhance flavors is relatively easy. One of my favorite guides to herbs and spices is Seasoning Savvy: How to Cook with Herbs, Spices, and Other Flavorings, by Alice Arndt (Hayworth Herbal Press, 1999). Although the book doesn’t contain a single recipe, it has a wealth of information about which spices work well together and with specific foods. If you prefer to take some herbs or spices as supplements, always opt for standardized forms that provide a consistent dose. You should know that I use the words herbs and spices loosely to mean any type of natural plant-based flavoring.
Basil is the herb that makes pesto sauces so mouth watering. The many varieties of basil are common ingredients in Italian, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisines. Like other leafy green herbs, basil is rich in antioxidants and research suggests that it may reduce the risk of cancer and prevent cell damage from radiation.2 3 A 2006 study found that basil might speed the healing of wounds.4 Basil, oregano, and garlic work especially well together on fish and chicken and in tomato sauces. You can also slice fresh basil leaves and add them to a salad.
Cinnamon, in taste or aroma, arouses an almost universal warm and cozy feeling. True cinnamon is obtained from small evergreen trees and is often difficult to find in markets. A closely related species, called cassia cinnamon, is much more common and can be used interchangeably in the form of sticks or powder. Recent studies have found that the cassia form of cinnamon can lower blood sugar levels in people with type-2 diabetes. 5 6 7 The beneficial amount seems to range from 1 to 6 grams of cinnamon powder daily, equivalent to about one-fourth to 1.5 teaspoons. You can add cinnamon powder to fruit and some meat dishes, such as ground lamb. (Water-soluble cinnamon extracts are also available in capsule form and may have value in reducing both blood sugar and cholesterol levels.) You can use cinnamon sticks to infuse their flavor in coffee, tea, or hot cider. You can sprinkle ground cinnamon on baked sweet potatoes and butternut squash; cooked oatmeal; or sliced apples. Adding a little cinnamon to tomato sauce sweetens the sauce.
Curry refers to a blend of Indian or southeast Asian spices rather than to any single spice. Traditionally, families mixed their own spices to make curries, but as Indian cuisine has become more popular, companies have tended to market a fairly consistent blend. The spices most commonly used in curry blends are coriander, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, and cayenne. Cardamom and fenugreek might also be added. A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that people who consumed the most curry had the sharpest minds and lowest risk of Alzheimer’s disease.8 Although researchers attributed most of the benefits to turmeric (curcumin) in curry, all of the spices are rich in protective antioxidants. You can use curry powder to spice up everything from steamed cauliflower to scrambled eggs.
Garlic may be the most familiar spice, given its widespread use in Italian foods and other cuisines. When garlic cloves are sliced, diced, or sautéed, chemical reactions start transforming the chemical allicin into almost 200 biologically active compounds. The scientific evidence suggests that garlic can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels and that it also enhances immunity. Many of the health benefits of garlic appear related to two specific compounds it contains, namely sulfur and selenium. Both are necessary ingredients for the body’s manufacture of glutathione peroxidase, a powerful antioxidant enzyme that helps the body break down toxins. In 2007, David W. Kraus, Ph.D., of the University of Alabama, Birmingham, and his colleagues discovered another mechanism for garlic’s health benefits. Kraus found that the body converts allicin and other garlic compounds to hydrogen sulfide, one of the substances known to cause garlic breath. Hydrogen sulfide relaxes blood vessels, which help maintain their flexibility and may protect against hypertension.9 You can add garlic to just about anything.
Ginger is widely used as a natural digestive aid. Recent studies have found that it can prevent nausea (morning sickness) in pregnant women. In a study published in American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, researchers analyzed the findings of five studies in which ginger supplements were used to treat nausea following surgery. They concluded that taking 1 gram or more of ginger reduced nausea and vomiting by about one-third on the first day following surgery. A separate group of researchers found that a combination of 1,000 mg of powdered ginger root, twice daily, plus a protein-rich drink eased nausea associated with chemotherapy.10 Use finely diced or grated ginger with garlic when stir-frying chicken.
Many herbs and spices can be combined to make great tasting hot or iced teas. Here are a few ideas.
Mint, including spearmint and peppermint, may very well be the best-known family of herbs. Mint is widely used as a digestive aid, and it can ease a variety of gastrointestinal problems, including stomachache and nausea. In 2007, researchers published a study showing that peppermint oil could reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.11 You can sprinkle fresh diced mint leaves on steamed carrots or cooked legumes; mint and lemon juice work well in salad dressings.
Oregano is an earthy and aromatic spice common in Greek, Italian, and Mexican cuisines. Norwegian researchers found that, ounce for ounce, oregano outshined other herbs and fruits and vegetables in terms of antioxidant power.12 In a 2008 study, doctors found that oregano lowered cholesterol levels and C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation.13 There’s also compelling evidence that oregano has antimicrobial activity.14 One study found that oregano could rid people of intestinal parasites.15 Oregano complements tomato sauces, as well as eggplants, mushrooms, and eggs. Mexican oregano has a similar flavor, but it’s from a different plant family.
Rosemary, which has a mild pine-needle odor, adds a rich flavor to chicken and salmon. It is chock full of antioxidants, particularly rosmarinic acid, and has anti-inflammatory benefits. Rosemary’s antioxidant properties can help prevent the oxidation of cholesterol, one of the early steps in the development of heart disease.16 Some research suggests that it may reduce the risk of asthma and liver disease.17 Rosemary and garlic complement each other; combine them with lemon juice and olive oil to marinate chicken.
Saffron has the distinction of being the world’s most expensive spice, costly at approximately $5,000 per pound. Don’t let that stop you—tiny amounts yield a yellow-orange color and a distinctive and mellow flavor on sautéed chicken, white varieties of fish, and rice. A recent study of 14 men and women found that a saffron extract improved stamina and reduced fatigue while exercising.18 A 2008 study in the Urology Journal reported saffron’s effect in enhancing sperm shape and activity in infertile men.19 Two other studies have noted that the spice has anti-depressant effects.20 21 To use saffron, crush the spice between your fingers and add it to about a tablespoon of room-temperature water, then use it to coat boneless chicken breasts. (Be careful because saffron can stain.) You can add a clove or two of finely diced garlic.
Sage is a mellow, earthy spice often used as a rub on baked chicken and turkey. Common sage is the most familiar type, but Spanish sage has smaller leaves and a stronger flavor. Both forms help maintain higher brain levels of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter involved in thinking, concentration, memory, motivation, and sexual arousal. Sage contains compounds that block the enzyme cholinesterase, which breaks down acetylcholine. Anti-Alzheimer’s disease drugs also work this way.22 23 A study using students at Northumbria University in England explored the effects of sage on male and female college students. Sage led to greater feelings of being alert, calm, and content.24 When preparing chicken or turkey for baking, combine rubbed sage, which has a powdery texture, with garlic.
Turmeric is one of the most common spices used in India and Southeast Asia. It is rich in curcumin, a potent anti-inflammatory compound and the focus of ongoing human studies. According to a recent paper, curcumin alters the activity of 97 biochemical pathways, many of which influence inflammation, cell signaling, and gene expression.25 Both turmeric and curcumin appear to reduce the risk of rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and liver disease. Two dozen human studies are currently underway to determine the added benefits of curcumin in the treatment of cancer. The dosages of curcumin in these studies range from 2 to 8 grams daily. Physicians and researchers at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Treatment Center, in Houston, recently published a study showing that large amounts of curcumin helped some patients with pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest forms of the disease.26 Because turmeric can have a bitter taste, it’s often best to add some extra to a curry blend.
Some combinations of herbs and spices work particularly well to enhance the flavor of foods. Here are some ideas.