Herbs and spices don’t just make your food taste better, they also make it far more nutritious. They definitely fall into the “super foods” category. But many people don’t even know the difference between an herb and a spice.
- Herbs: Typically come from leaves and stems.
- Spices: Typically come from seeds, fruit, and bark.
Most nutrient density scales and indexes actually place herbs and spices as the second most nutrient dense food after organ meats. Take a look at this nutrient density ranking from organic chemist, Dr. Mathieu Lalonde:
- Organ meats
- Herbs and spices
- Nuts and seeds
- Fish and seafood
This ranking ought to be pretty good news if you don’t have a huge appetite for calf brain, chicken liver, or goat face. Just spice up your food instead.
What Makes Them Nutritious?
For starters, they’re packed with antioxidants, with many of them far exceeding the levels found in fruits and vegetables on a per-weight basis. The phenol levels in cloves are 30 percent of dry weight, compared to 5 percent in blueberries. And oregano has 42 times more antioxidants than apples (1 tablespoon = 1 medium sized apple).
And though these values are reduced under heat (by as much as 50 percent) research shows that they still inhibit the oxidative damage from unstable fats and other cell damaging, carcinogenic compounds that are created while cooking. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that meat flavored with an antioxidant-rich spice blend reduced levels of malondialdehyde (a marker for oxidation) by 71 percent.
So, adding herbs and spices to your meals means that you’re increasing your body’s protection against free radical damage. Other health benefits include:
- Reduced inflammation
- Controlled blood sugar and appetite
- Strengthened immune system (antibacterial, antiviral)
- Improved digestion and gastrointestinal health
- Improved blood lipids (triglycerides, cholesterol)
The Top 10 Herbs
1 – Rosemary
Often added to olive oil and fish oil supplements to prevent oxidation, this carnosol-rich herb is the perfect arterial protector. Research shows it inhibits the formation of HCAs (heterocyclic aromatic amines) when frying meat, improves the oxidative stability of butter, and even encourages the up-regulation of the antioxidant glutathione. Rosmarinic acid, the active ingredient in rosemary, also appears to help with nasal congestion and allergy symptoms, making it the perfect ingredient for soups and teas.
2 – Thyme
Thymol, the antioxidant in thyme, is a potent infection inhibitor. This member of the mint family is a popular ingredient in mouthwash and cleaners, and it’s been used in tea format to treat everything from athletes foot to yeast infections. Thyme is also effective as a cooking oil stabilizer. When combined with rosemary and garlic, it makes for a nice dry rub, especially on lamb!
3 – Oregano (Marjoram)
As far as antioxidant rankings go, oregano is a powerhouse. It has 42 times more antioxidant activity than apples, 30 times more than potatoes, 12 times more than oranges, and 4 times more than blueberries.
Oregano is so powerful as an antiviral and antibacterial agent that it’s proven just as effective in killing E. Coli and staph as penicillin. That makes it the perfect addition to your meals to protect against food-borne pathogens (and carcinogenic cooking compounds), and the perfect addition to your soups and teas to protect against coughs, colds, and sickness.
4 – Sage
This herb doesn’t get as much publicity as the anti-inflammatory spices for supporting the brain, but the oil in sage appears to inhibit the breakdown of an important neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which supports memory and is often reduced in those with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
In a 2003 study from the Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics, researchers saw significant improvements in brain function after giving sage extract to 42 individuals with mild to moderate cognitive impairment over a 4-month period. A long list of other studies have shown similar improvements in healthy people (both young and old) when it comes to memory and attention.
Like rosemary, this piney-tasting herb is also a rich source of rosmarinic acid that supplies added protection against oxidizing fats and free radical damage. Add it to meats and sauteed vegetables.
5 – Basil
If you’ve eaten pesto sauce you’ve had basil. And though it’s often praised for its anti-inflammatory properties and vitamin K content, you should add it to your meals for the extra protection against bacteria. It can directly disarm a long list of infections (including listeria, staphylococcus, and E. coli) with its various volatile oils (estragole, myrcene cineole, eugenol, limonene, etc).
Not surprisingly, its high concentration of polyphenols and flavonoids also means an increased resistance to cellular damage, both during and after consumption. This appears to hold true for all parts of the plant and all its varieties. Holy Basil is the most popular, and most widely studied, for healing.
6 – Mint
Here we’re talking about peppermint and spearmint leaves that taste like toothpaste and chewing gum. Along with being an effective option for fighting sickness and infection, mint provides a healthy dose of digestive and gastrointestinal support.
One study from 2007 had more than 75 percent of the 57 participants experience significant relief from their IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) after 4 weeks of supplemental peppermint oil. How? Evidence suggests it’s a combination of relaxing the gut muscles, stimulating enzyme production, and killing some of the bad bacteria overgrowth (yeast, parasites, fungi, etc.) that’s occurred in the small intestine. Add some mint to your meals or after them in peppermint tea format.
7 – Ginseng
Ginseng is known as an adaptogenic herb. An adaptogen is something that brings you into balance or homeostasis. Meaning, if you’re tired it wakes you up, and if you’re wired it brings you down, mainly because of an increased resistance to cellular stress.
Ginseng is commonly marketed for its ability to enhance mental performance and mood, but where it’s truly beneficial is in preventing cognitive impairment and neuronal damage in the first place. In a Chinese study, participants with mild to moderate dementia saw significant memory improvement after 12 weeks of ginseng extract supplementation compared to the placebo group.
This extra brain protection is likely the result of reductions in stress, but ginseng’s anti-inflammatory properties could also be playing a role. Outside of cognitive enhancement, it’s also been tied to improvements in blood sugar, boosting the immune system, and even treating sexual dysfunction.
8 – Tarragon
Sleep and gut health are critical components of a long, healthy life. Fortunately, tarragon can help with both if you get used to adding it to your food regularly. Tarragon improves digestion by stimulating enzyme production, relaxing the gastrointestinal muscles, and going to work on any bacterial infections that may be present in the gut. As for sleep, it appears to be driven by the pain-numbing properties of eugenol. The French use it as an insomnia treatment.
9 – Cilantro (Coriander)
In the journal Phytotherapy Research, cilantro is described as “anti-microbial, anti-oxidant, anti-diabetic, anxiolytic, anti-epileptic, anti-depressant, anti-mutagenic, anti-inflammatory, anti-dyslipidemic, anti-hypertensive, neuro-protective and diuretic.”
In North America, we typically refer to the leaves of this plant as cilantro and the seeds as coriander. Both contribute to the list of benefits above, but coriander seeds (Coriandrum sativum) have been more heavily studied, especially when we’re talking about the effects on blood sugar, blood pressure, and blood cholesterol levels.
10 – Dill Weed
If there’s one herb you want to eat fresh and avoid cooking at high temperatures (or reserve for uncooked foods) it’s dill. It loses a lot of nutrients when heated, and loses a lot of its flavor when dried. Dill acts as more of an antibacterial or antimicrobial than an antioxidant. It’s best known for its stomach settling, digestion improving, and bacteria-killing abilities. So don’t be afraid to add it to soups, salads, sauces, and lightly cooked fish.
Honorable Mentions: Bay leaf, fennel, parsley, chives, and lemon grass.
The Top 10 Spices
1 – Turmeric
Curcumin is the main health boosting compound found in turmeric, and turmeric forms the foundation of curry. It’s an anti-inflammatory and thus helps reduce the risk of pretty much every degenerative condition, especially those of the brain, heart, and nervous system.
There’s evidence to suggest that lower rates of Alzheimer’s disease in India (compared to the U.S.) and East Asia (compared to Europe) could be related to greater amounts of turmeric consumption. This is based on curcumin’s ability to cross the blood brain barrier and exhibit a variety of neuroprotective effects.
Curcumin is also a powerful antioxidant, meaning it provides dual protection against disease. Research shows it’s 5-10 times stronger than vitamin C and E when it comes to gobbling up free radicals.
2 – Cinnamon
When you think of cinnamon, think “blood sugar.” It’s one of the best things you can add to your diet to improve insulin sensitivity and glycemic control. A review study from the journal Diabetes Obesity and Metabolism looked at cinnamon’s affect on fasting blood glucose in type 2 diabetics and found reductions ranging from 10-29 percent.
One easy way to add cinnamon to your diet is to put it in your coffee or tea. This will easily put you in the 1-3 gram per day range (1-2 teaspoons) where these benefits lie. It’s also a great spice for adding to other foods. The ever-popular sweet potato and cinnamon combo will light up your taste buds without lighting up your blood sugar.
3 – Garlic
Garlic is like an insurance policy. It protects you against the common cold and other sicknesses, and enhances the overall health of your gastrointestinal tract where disease starts. A regular dose of garlic keeps things balanced in your gut by killing yeast and pathogenic bacteria, and feeding the beneficial microbes that help keep us lean and healthy. Onions and shallots do the same, but what sets garlic apart is its allicin content. Allicin is a compound that’s only released when the garlic cloves are chopped or crushed, so consume it fresh when possible.
4 – Cayenne/Paprika (Peppers)
This spice comes from those little red and green peppers. It’s best known for its ability to fire up your metabolism and get your blood pumping. The high capsaicin content is responsible for the bump in energy expenditure and dilation of blood vessels.
But the real benefit from capsaicin-containing spices is their ability to control hunger. Arguably, this is the bigger driver behind all the positive research on fat loss. A study from the journal Physiology & Behavior split 25 normal weight men and women into two groups. One group received a gram of red pepper spice and the other received none. The spice eaters had a slightly higher core temperature and energy expenditure, and a significantly lower appetite and desire to consume fatty, salty, and sweet foods.
Similarly, a 2009 study showed a significant difference in ghrelin (the hunger hormone) after assigning participants to a capsaicin-containing, or capsaicin-free lunch.
Now, “hot spices” can cause a little bit of gastrointestinal distress. So if you’re already dealing with an issue, or suspect you may have one, it would be wise to steer clear of them for now.
Ginger is best known for its anti-inflammatory effects. It helps soothe or calm the muscles of the gastrointestinal system and alleviates nausea and morning sickness. There’s also plenty of research to suggest that ginger is beneficial for arthritic pain and muscle soreness, which wouldn’t be surprising given its anti-inflammatory effects. It also supplies a hefty dose of antioxidants, so you can expect to experience the same protection against diseases, most notably those of the brain and heart.
6 – Cloves
When looking at the more common herbs and spices listed here, ground cloves actually have the highest ORAC value – a measure of antioxidant status – with some indexes suggesting it’s nearly double that of oregano, the next highest gram-for-gram.
Cloves are great for digestion, essentially “warming up the stomach” and encouraging the body to secrete stomach acid (HCL), which is critical for the proper breakdown of food and absorption of the nutrients in it. Cloves also supply a shot of antimicrobial, antifungal, and antiviral oil which disarms potential pathogens and boosts the overall strength and function of the immune and gastrointestinal system.
Despite conventional thinking, a lack of HCL is the reason many struggle with heartburn, indigestion, and other gastrointestinal issues. So, ditch the Maalox and Tums and get some cloves (and apple cider vinegar) in the mix.
7 – Cumin
Cumin is another popular ingredient in curry and is responsible for that delicious taco flavor in Mexican dishes. It’s best to think of cumin as a digestion helper, bacteria fighter, and oxidation preventer. It may also reduce blood glucose and glycation (in diabetic rats), and boost the immune response (in stress-induced mice). But we should probably take that information with a grain of salt.
8 – Cardamom
It’s one of the top spices for aiding digestion, its powerful oil kills pathogenic bacteria (Streptococcus mutans and Candida albicans) in the mouth and likely the gut, and it has a dilating affect, supporting better oxygen and blood flow. Other than using it in tea or adding it to sweet dishes, you can chew on the cardamom pods, like they do in India, to fight bad breath and get a little teeth cleaning from the fibrous coating.
9 – Fennel Seeds
This cooling spice helps with digestion and bad breath. The essential oils in fennel seeds also appear to stave off infection and relax the stomach muscles. Fennel is known to provide relief to those with irritated gastrointestinal tracts, and it protects against bacterial overgrowth and infection. It’s also a rich source of antioxidants. One analysis identified 23 bioflavonoid or phenolic-rich compounds in the essential oil produced from its crushed seeds.
10 – Peppercorn (Black Pepper)
Black pepper is the most commonly traded and consumed spice, yet the benefits are commonly unknown. If they were known, we’d see more pairings of pepper with other spices given that “increasing the absorption of other nutrients” is its biggest attribute. Think of it as the spice that complements other spices. In one study, researchers administered two grams of curcumin with and without piperine (the chemical compound in peppercorn) and saw 2000-percent greater bioavailability when piperine was included.
Honorable Mentions: Caraway, saffron, anise, mustard seeds, allspice, fenugreek, and cocoa bean.
A Note on Disease Prevention
Disease prevention comes down to the diet, lifestyle, and genetics as a whole, not a single food, no matter how nutritious it is. But herbs and spices can reduce oxidation, inflammation, and other disease-causing factors. And yes, certain compounds have been shown to decrease the spread of cancer and destroy cancer cells, but they shouldn’t be relied on as a primary means of prevention or treatment.