Article by Victoria Shanta Retelny
Nutrition: Herbs and spices not only enhance food’s flavor but may also bolster your health.
The culinary world would be lackluster
without spices. Imagine tomato sauce without basil, hummus without
garlic or sushi minus pickled ginger. Spices, like their botanical leafy
counterparts, herbs, not only impart diverse flavors, colors and tastes
to foods, but science is showing that they also offer a host of
powerful phytonutrients that can enhance health and well-being. While
culinary herbs and spices have been used for thousands of years,
extensive research in the last two decades has shown the numerous health
benefits of herbs and spices. In fact, they may prevent chronic
illnesses, such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other
serious pulmonary, neurological and autoimmune conditions (Aggarwal et
“Spices are the easiest and least expensive way to enhance flavor
without adding fat, calories, sodium, cholesterol or trans fats,” says
Robin Plotkin, RD, a registered dietitian and culinary communications
consultant based in Dallas. Drawing on sources from folklore to current
literature, here are some of the health benefits of herbs and spices.
On first glance, ginger looks like nothing more than a knotty, thick
root you’d step over in a forest. But this underground stem of the
perennial plant Zingiber officinale has long been used to
successfully treat gastrointestinal disorders, such as stomach aches,
abdominal spasm, nausea or vomiting, in addition to other conditions,
such as arthritis and motion sickness (El-Abhar, Hammad & Gawad
Ginger comes in a variety of forms: fresh, pickled, dried,
powdered and/or crystallized—all of which are effective in promoting
health. According to Dave Grotto, RD, LDN, author of 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life
(Bantam 2008), “Ginger has been a home remedy through many generations
for treating a variety of conditions.” These conditions include nausea
from pregnancy-related morning sickness and chemotherapy-induced delayed
There are very few side effects from ginger at low doses. The
most commonly reported side effects involve the stomach and intestines.
Irritation or bad taste in the mouth, heartburn, belching, bloating, gas
and nausea have been reported, especially with powdered forms of ginger
(Medline Plus 2008).
With origins that trace back to India nearly 4,000 years ago, basil
leaves come in many sizes, shapes and colors. From a culinary
perspective, the most commonly used varieties are large-leaf Italian
sweet, tiny-leaf bush, lemon and African blue (Grotto 2008). “Basil is
more recognized by the American palette as an essential in our love of
Italian food,” notes Chef Ryan Hutmacher, a partner in Centered Chef
Food Studios in Chicago. However, basil leaves are used frequently in
numerous types of cuisine.
Basil contains many different and powerful flavonoids, which
protect against cell
damage and have strong antioxidant and
antibacterial properties (Grotto 2008). Studies have shown that basil
contributes to heart health by improving circulation and reducing heart
disease and acts as an antibacterial agent to even the more
antibiotic-resistant types of bacteria, particularly those found in
produce (Opalchenova & Obreshkova 2003).
Basil is a benign plant. Eat it up, as there are no reported side effects.
Cinnamon comes from the bark of a tropical evergreen tree. Although
this sweet spice comes in four types, two of them are more popular among
chefs: Cinnamomum zeylanicum (also known as Ceylon cinnamon) and Cinnamomum cassia
(also known as Chinese cassia or Indonesian cinnamon) (Grotto 2008). Of
the two, Ceylon cinnamon is the sweeter and richer in taste; it also
costs more than Cinnamomum cassia, which is more widely available in the United States (Grotto 2008).
Studies show that cinnamon can alleviate gout and arthritis
flare-ups (Kong et al. 2000) and keep blood flowing smoothly by reducing
blood lipids (Kahn et al. 2003). “Cinnamon, particularly Ceylon, is
excellent for inflammation,” explains Grotto. Cinnamon may also lower
blood sugar in individuals with type 2 diabetes (Mang
et al. 2006). Nutritionally, cinnamon is an
excellent source of manganese and a good source of calcium, iron and
Cinnamon is not known to be an allergenic food, so sprinkle or stir away!
In the United States, cooks call the seeds of the Coriandrum sativum
plant “coriander,” while the leaves of the same plant are known as
“cilantro.” The seeds, when crushed and ground, have a lemony, citrus
In traditional Indian medicine, the coriander plant is used as a
diuretic (the seeds are boiled along with cumin and consumed as a
beverage) (Hashmi Dawakhana 2007). Research has shown coriander can also
aid in digestion (Saskatchewan Herb and Spice Association 2008).
Coriander has long been used to treat anxiety.
Be aware that coriander seeds have been shown to produce allergic
reactions in some people (Ebo et al. 2006). People who are allergic to
any medications (prescription or over-the-counter) should use coriander
Rosemary has a distinct flavor and scent, which is no surprise since
it is a member of the mint family. It typically grows by the sea, hence
the name, which is derived from the Latin rosmarinus, meaning “dew of the sea.” The fragrant leaves of this plant look like tiny evergreen needles.
Rosemary is extremely high in iron, calcium and vitamin B6.
It also contains a large number of polyphenolic compounds that can
inhibit oxidation and bacterial growth (Grotto 2008). In cancer
prevention studies, rosemary has been found to protect the blood against
radiation exposure (Del Baño et al. 2006). It may even help with memory
loss; a recent study found that when the scent of rosemary was pumped
into workplace cubicles, people exhibited improved memory (Moss et al.
Used in moderate amounts when cooking, rosemary is quite safe.
However, people prone to epileptic seizures should use caution; also,
rosemary oil (used in a variety of nonfood items, such as shampoo) has
been shown to cause seizures.
Cayenne is a red, hot chili pepper related to bell peppers and jalapeños; it is part of the Capsicum
genus and nightshade family. In its ground form, it is known as the
powdered spice “cayenne pepper.” According to Grotto, “Peppers contain
vitamin C and are a good source of beta carotene and B vitamins. They
also contain inflammation-
Cayenne is known to relieve pain and itching and has been used
for centuries as a topical and internal medicine. Research has shown it
is effective for relieving gas, stomach aches, cramps, circulatory
diseases, sore throats and body heat regulation conditions, such as cold
feet (Whole Foods 2008).
Be careful when handling cayenne peppers, as the pungent seeds
and white membranes can cause severe burning of the skin, lips and eyes.
Rubber gloves are a good solution when using cayenne or any chili
pepper. If no gloves are available, be sure to wash hands, knives and
cutting boards thoroughly after use. When eating fiery dishes made with
cayenne, drink milk, which can quickly put out the fire.
Sidebar: Spice Rack Basics: Selection, Storage and Culinary Uses
Make the most of your herbs and spices by following this advice on how to select, store and use them in the kitchen.
Selection. Select fresh ginger that is bruise-free and light-brown to cream in color.
Storage. Fresh ginger should be kept at room temperature. “Wait
to peel until you are ready to use, as its natural skin protects it and
keeps it from going bad,” advises Chef Ryan Hutmacher, a partner in
Centered Chef Food Studios in Chicago.
Culinary Uses. “Sauté in olive or sesame oil, like you would
garlic, and add fresh spinach, kale or a mix of Asian vegetables,”
suggests Chef Michelle Dudash, RD, president and founder of Chef Dudash
Nutrition in Gilbert, Arizona.
Selection. Pick basil that has bright-green leaves and no yellow spots.
Storage. Basil keeps for only a few days in the refrigerator. To
extend its life, Hutmacher recommends these simple storage techniques:
“The more humidity, the faster it will wilt. Take a paper towel, and
sprinkle a couple of drops of water on it. (It should not be dripping
wet.) Gently bundle the herbs inside the towel. Place the wrapped bundle
into a transparent container in the fridge, and replace the damp paper
towel every 3–4 days.”
Culinary Uses. Traditionally, basil is a key ingredient in
Italian cookery, such as pesto and marinara sauces. However, it can also
enhance salad dressings, pizza, fish/shrimp and chicken dishes. Dudash
recommends tossing a few freshly cut basil leaves into pastas and over
vegetables right before serving. “Dried basil is great, too, in the same
types of dishes, but add during cooking,” she advises.
Selection. Be sure to smell cinnamon, as it is freshest when it smells sweet.
Storage. Ground cinnamon lasts about 6 months, whereas cinnamon
sticks can be kept for up to 1 year before they lose their luster. Store
all cinnamon in a dark place in an airtight container.
Culinary Uses. Cinnamon is used in both sweet and savory dishes,
such as rice pudding, pies, soups, salad dressings and rice dishes. “Add
a whole cinnamon stick into soups like carrot, pumpkin or butternut
squash; when making your own curry spice blend, adding cinnamon is a
must,” suggests Dudash. Hutmacher uses cinnamon in combination with
cayenne and ground coriander when making regional Mexican dishes.
Selection. Typically sold as a whole dried seed, coriander can be
found in powdered form. Grind only what you need, since it can quickly
Storage. Keep in an airtight container in a dark, cool place. For best flavor, use whole seeds within 6 months.
Culinary Uses. Coriander is used in meat rubs, seasonings and
sausage products; it is the main spice in Indian curries. Toasting the
coriander seeds before use imparts the most flavor.
Selection. While dried or oil forms are available, fresh rosemary is the most potent and is typically preferred by cooks.
Storage. Fresh rosemary must be kept in the refrigerator.
Culinary Uses. Rosemary is used mainly in savory dishes, such as roasted potatoes, marinades, chicken and turkey dishes.
Selection. Look for vivid, deep colors and firm, taut
skin without black spots.
The stems should look fresh.
Storage. Unwashed fresh peppers can last for 1 week in a paper
bag or paper towel in the refrigerator. Never put peppers in plastic
bags, as moisture may cause premature spoilage. Powders should be kept
in a tightly sealed container in a cool, dark place.
Culinary Uses. Add to soups and sauces; sauté with vegetables; add to yogurt to make a dip; or use in curry, meat, fish or poultry dishes.