Health Benefits of Herbs and Spices
Herbs and spices are any savory, aromatic, edible plant used to flavor or garnish food (or in some cases, for their medicinal properties!). Although herbs and spices are often grouped together, and in some cases even come from the same plant (such as dill leaves and dill seeds), they have some key differences: spices are usually used when dried and are derived from seeds, barks, fruits, berries and roots, while herbs can be used fresh and are derived more often from the leaves, fronds, or flowering parts of a plant.
Herbs have been important to virtually every human culture scrolling back long before recorded history, and even show up on cave paintings in France dating as far back as 25,000 BCE. Ancient Egyptians began writing about herbs by the 28th century BCE, and by 700 BCE, Greek merchants were trading marjoram, sage, and thyme in markets in Athens (Hippocrates, the “father of medicine,” later catalogued 400 different herbs being used at the time!).
As far back as 2000 BCE, spice trade developed throughout the Middle East (most notably with spices like black pepper and cinnamon). And in 130 BCE, when the Han Dynasty in China officially opened trade with the West, the famous Silk Road formed as a network of trade routes linking Asia with Northern Africa and Europe, where spices (among many other things!) were brought from the East via camel caravans and exchanged for goods such as animals, honey, fruits, textiles, glassware, and precious metals. In order to drive up prices and deter competitors, Arabic spice merchants crafted fantastical tales about the origin of their spices and the grueling work it took to collect them. For example, cinnamon was said to come from the nests of a giant bird called the Cinnamologus, which spice merchants would lure to the ground with chunks of oxen and donkey. When the bird returned to its nest with the meat, the weight would be too much for the nest to hold, causing it to break and fall to the ground where the merchants were waiting to collect it! The trade occurring on the Silk Road directly contributed to the development of China, Egypt, Persia, Arabia, India, and Rome!
The health benefits attributed to herbs and spices, and particularly their phytonutrient content and volatile oils, are incredibly vast. In general, herbs and spices have been shown to have powerful antioxidant activity, exhibit anti-cancer effects (especially due to polyphenols, terpenes, vanilloids, and organosulfur compounds), reduce inflammation (for example, basil, bay leaves, sage, thyme, licorice, and oregano have been shown to improve cytokine profiles), and reduce cardiovascular disease risk.
There is evidence from human clinical trials showing that adding spices and herbs to our diet can improve serum lipid profiles (HDL cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and triglycerides) as well as glycemic control, blood pressure, inflammation, and oxidative stress. For example, a 2022 study added a mere 6.6 grams per day per 2100 calories of herbs and spices (that’s about a teaspoon of seasonings throughout the whole day) to the diets of adults with risk factors for cardiovascular disease, with a crossover design comparing to a 3.3 grams of herbs and spices phase as well as a <0.5 grams herbs and spices phase. After four weeks consuming the higher level of herbs and spices, the participants had significant improvements in gut microbiome composition including growth of bacteria associated with reduced cardiovascular disease risk. A 2021 study by the same research group showed reductions in blood pressure after a single day of higher intake of herbs and spices. And a follow-up 2022 study showed reduced markers of inflammation after four weeks of the higher spice intake diet, including reduced fasting plasma IL-6 and postprandial plasma IL-1β, IL-8, and TNF-α. All in all, this makes a compelling case for aiming for a teaspoon per day of herbs and spices added to our meals!
Examples of Herbs and Spices
- amchur (mango powder)
- anise seed
- annatto seed
- balm (lemon balm)
- basil leaves (sweet)
- bay leaves (laurel leaves)
- black caraway
- black pepper
- celery seed
- cilantro (coriander leaf)
- coriander seed
- cumin seed
- curry leaves
- dill seed
- dill weed
- fennel seed
- fenugreek leaves
- green peppercorns
- kaffir lime leaves
- mustard seed
- perilla leaves (beefsteak leaves)
- pink peppercorns
- poppy seed
- sesame seed
- star anise
- vanilla bean
- white pepper
Nutrients in Herbs and Spices
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