Table of Contents[Hide][Show]
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, LCL 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
Want to Know ALL the Easy Steps to Nutrivore?
Get it Directly in Your Inbox!
The Nutrivore Newsletter is a weekly email that delivers bite-size fun facts, practical tips, recipes and resources. Sign up now and get 5 free guides directly to your inbox:
- Easy Steps to Nutrivore 4-page guide
- Nutrivore Foundational Foods 6-page guide
- Nutrivore Score Guide to Food Groups 3-page guide
- Nutrivore Meal Map
- Top 100 Nutrivore Score Foods
Nutrients in Herbs and Spices
Easily track your servings of Nutrivore Foundational Foods!
The Nutrivore Weekly Serving Matrix
The Nutrivore Weekly Serving Matrix digital resource is an easy-to-use and flexible weekly checklist designed to help you maximize nutrient-density and meet serving suggestions of Nutrivore foundational foods, all without having to weigh or measure your foods!
Includes a 1-hour video tutorial and downloadable interactive guides.
Help me to keep building Nutrivore.com
I’m working on writing more awesome articles on this topic to be featured right here on this webpage. If you’re enjoying the content my team and I have created thus far and would like to see more, you can support our efforts to keep building out this site by joining the Nutrivore community on Patreon!
Plus, you’ll gain exclusive access to the monthly Nutrivore Podcast, a NEW e-book every single month on a Nutrivore foundational food group, including 12 recipes, plus the entire, browsable Nutrivore Score database, and you can ask me all your Nutrivore questions directly! Sign up now and also get 5 free Nutrivore guides as a welcome gift! Win-win!
Expand to see all scientific references for this article.
Abu-Izneid T, et al. “Nutritional and health beneficial properties of saffron ( Crocus sativus L): a comprehensive review.” Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2020 Dec 17;1-24. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2020.1857682.
Ali SS, et al. “The antidepressant-like effect of Ocimum basilicum in an animal model of depression.” Biotech Histochem. 2017;92(6):390-401. doi: 10.1080/10520295.2017.1323276. Epub 2017 Aug 11.
Amrani S, et al. “Vasorelaxant and anti-platelet aggregation effects of aqueous Ocimum basilicum extract.” J Ethnopharmacol. 2009 Aug 17;125(1):157-62. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2009.05.043. Epub 2009 Jun 6.
Ashokkumar K, et al. “Botany, traditional uses, phytochemistry and biological activities of cardamom [Elettaria cardamomum (L.) Maton] – A critical review.” J Ethnopharmacol. 2020 Jan 10;246:112244. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2019.112244. Epub 2019 Sep 18.
Bina F & Rahimi R. “Sweet Marjoram: A Review of Ethnopharmacology, Phytochemistry, and Biological Activities.” J Evid Based Complementary Altern Med. 2017 Jan;22(1):175-185. doi: 10.1177/2156587216650793. Epub 2016 May 26.
Bora KS, et al. “Role of Ocimum basilicum L. in prevention of ischemia and reperfusion-induced cerebral damage, and motor dysfunctions in mice brain.” J Ethnopharmacol. 2011 Oct 11;137(3):1360-5. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2011.07.066. Epub 2011 Aug 5.
Delaquis PJ, et al. “Antimicrobial activity of individual and mixed fractions of dill, cilantro, coriander and eucalyptus essential oils.” Int J Food Microbiol. 2002 Mar 25;74(1-2):101-9. doi: 10.1016/s0168-1605(01)00734-6.
Elansary HO & Mahmoud EA. “In vitro antioxidant and antiproliferative activities of six international basil cultivars.” Nat Prod Res. 2015;29(22):2149-54. doi: 10.1080/14786419.2014.995653. Epub 2015 Jan 2.
Guldiken B, et al. “Phytochemicals of herbs and spices: Health versus toxicological effects.” Food Chem Toxicol. 2018 Sep;119:37-49. doi: 10.1016/j.fct.2018.05.050. Epub 2018 May 23.
Guo Y, et al. “Antidepressant Effects of Rosemary Extracts Associate With Anti-inflammatory Effect and Rebalance of Gut Microbiota.” Front Pharmacol. 2018 Oct 2;9:1126. doi: 10.3389/fphar.2018.01126. eCollection 2018.
Gupta K, Testa H, Greenwood T, Kostek M, Haushalter K, Kris-Etherton PM, Petersen KS. The effect of herbs and spices on risk factors for cardiometabolic diseases: a review of human clinical trials. Nutr Rev. 2022 Feb 10;80(3):400-427. doi: 10.1093/nutrit/nuab034.
Gutiérrez-Grijalva EP, et al. “Flavonoids and Phenolic Acids from Oregano: Occurrence, Biological Activity and Health Benefits.” Plants (Basel). 2017 Dec 26;7(1):2. doi: 10.3390/plants7010002.
Hassani FV, et al. “Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) as a potential therapeutic plant in metabolic syndrome: a review.” Naunyn Schmiedebergs Arch Pharmacol. 2016 Sep;389(9):931-49. doi: 10.1007/s00210-016-1256-0. Epub 2016 May 13.
Husein IH, et al. “The effect of marjoram (Origanum majorana) tea on the hormonal profile of women with polycystic ovary syndrome: a randomised controlled pilot study.” J Hum Nutr Diet. 2016 Feb;29(1):105-11. doi: 10.1111/jhn.12290. Epub 2015 Feb 9.
Jamshidi N & Cohen MM. “The Clinical Efficacy and Safety of Tulsi in Humans: A Systematic Review of the Literature.” Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2017;2017:9217567. doi: 10.1155/2017/9217567. Epub 2017 Mar 16.
Khanna R, et al. “Peppermint oil for the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” J Clin Gastroenterol. 2014 Jul;48(6):505-12. doi: 10.1097/MCG.0b013e3182a88357.
Lai PK & Roy J. “Antimicrobial and chemopreventive properties of herbs and spices.” Curr Med Chem. 2004 Jun;11(11):1451-60. doi: 10.2174/0929867043365107.
Mahendran G & Rahman LU. “Ethnomedicinal, phytochemical and pharmacological updates on Peppermint (Mentha × piperita L.)-A review.” Phytother Res. 2020 Sep;34(9):2088-2139. doi: 10.1002/ptr.6664. Epub 2020 Mar 16.
Majdalawieh A, et al. “In vitro investigation of the potential immunomodulatory and anti-cancer activities of black pepper (Piper nigrum) and cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum).” J Med Food. 2010 Apr;13(2):371-81. doi: 10.1089/jmf.2009.1131.
Naeem N, et al. “Nutmeg: A review on uses and biological properties.” International Journal of Chemical and Biochemical Sciences. 2016 Jan;107-110.
Oh ES, Petersen KS, Kris-Etherton PM, Rogers CJ. Four weeks of spice consumption lowers plasma proinflammatory cytokines and alters the function of monocytes in adults at risk of cardiometabolic disease: secondary outcome analysis in a 3-period, randomized, crossover, controlled feeding trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2022 Jan 11;115(1):61-72. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/nqab331.
Oliveira JR, et al. “Rosmarinus officinalis L. (rosemary) as therapeutic and prophylactic agent.” J Biomed Sci. 2019 Jan 9;26(1):5. doi: 10.1186/s12929-019-0499-8.
Petersen KS, Davis KM, Rogers CJ, Proctor DN, West SG, Kris-Etherton PM. Herbs and spices at a relatively high culinary dosage improves 24-hour ambulatory blood pressure in adults at risk of cardiometabolic diseases: a randomized, crossover, controlled-feeding study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2021 Dec 1;114(6):1936-1948. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/nqab291.
Petersen KS, Anderson S, Chen See JR, Leister J, Kris-Etherton PM, Lamendella R. Herbs and Spices Modulate Gut Bacterial Composition in Adults At Risk for Cardiovascular Disease: Results of a Pre-Specified Exploratory Analysis from a Randomized, Crossover, Controlled-Feeding Study. J Nutr. 2022 Sep 2;152(11):2461–70. doi: 10.1093/jn/nxac201. Epub ahead of print.
Rahbardar MG, et al. “Therapeutic effects of rosemary ( Rosmarinus officinalis L.) and its active constituents on nervous system disorders.” Iran J Basic Med Sci. 2020 Sep;23(9):1100-1112. doi: 10.22038/ijbms.2020.45269.10541.
Ranasinghe P & Galappaththy P. “Health benefits of Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum): a summary of the current evidence.” Ceylon Med J. 2016 Mar;61(1):1-5. doi: 10.4038/cmj.v61i1.8251.
Romo-Vaquero M, et al. “A rosemary extract rich in carnosic acid selectively modulates caecum microbiota and inhibits β-glucosidase activity, altering fiber and short chain fatty acids fecal excretion in lean and obese female rats.” PLoS One. 2014 Apr 14;9(4):e94687. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0094687. eCollection 2014.
Sahib NG, et al. “Coriander (Coriandrum sativum L.): a potential source of high-value components for functional foods and nutraceuticals–a review.” Phytother Res. 2013 Oct;27(10):1439-56. doi: 10.1002/ptr.4897. Epub 2012 Dec 19.
Saleh BK, et al. “Medicinal uses and health benefits of chili pepper (Capsicum spp.): a review.” MOJ Food Processing and Technology. 2018 Jul;6(4).
Sataphathy S, et al. “Effect of Tulsi ( Ocimum sanctum Linn.) Supplementation on Metabolic Parameters and Liver Enzymes in Young Overweight and Obese Subjects.” Indian J Clin Biochem. 2017 Jul;32(3):357-363. doi: 10.1007/s12291-016-0615-4. Epub 2016 Sep 16.
Shahrajabian MH, et al. “Chinese star anise and anise, magic herbs in traditional Chinese medicine and modern pharmaceutical science.” Asian Journal of Medical and Biological Research. 2019;5(3):162-169.
Singletary K. “Cinnamon: Update of Potential Health Benefits.” Nutrition Today 2019. 51(1):42-52.
Singletary, Keith W. “Basil: A Brief Summary of Potential Health Benefits.” Nutrition Today 2018;53(2):92-97.
Smith A & Mackie RI. “Effect of condensed tannins on bacterial diversity and metabolic activity in the rat gastrointestinal tract.” Appl Environ Microbiol. 2004 Feb;70(2):1104-15. doi: 10.1128/aem.70.2.1104-1115.2004.
Smith AH & Mackie R. “Effect of condensed tannins on bacterial diversity and metabolic activity in the rat gastrointestinal tract.” Appl Environ Microbiol. 2004 Feb;70(2):1104-15. doi: 10.1128/aem.70.2.1104-1115.2004.
Srinivasan K, et al. “Cumin (Cuminum cyminum) and black cumin (Nigella sativa) seeds: traditional uses, chemical constituents, and nutraceutical effects.” Food Quality and Safety. 2018 Mar;2(1):1-16.
Takooree H, et al. “A systematic review on black pepper (Piper nigrum L.): from folk uses to pharmacological applications.” Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2019;59(sup1):S210-S243. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2019.1565489. Epub 2019 Feb 11.
Thomaz FS, et al. “The influence of wasabi on the gut microbiota of high-carbohydrate, high-fat diet-induced hypertensive Wistar rats.” Journal of Human Hypertension 2020 May;35(2):170-180 DOI: 10.1038/s41371-020-0359-8
Varghese S, et al. “Chili pepper as a body weight-loss food.” Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2017 Jun;68(4):392-401. doi: 10.1080/09637486.2016.1258044. Epub 2016 Nov 29.
Veenstra JP & Johnson JJ. “Oregano (Origanum vulgare) extract for food preservation and improvement in gastrointestinal health.” Int J Nutr. 2019;3(4):43-52. doi: 10.14302/issn.2379-7835.ijn-19-2703. Epub 2019 Apr 9.
Zhang L & Lokeshwar BL. “Medicinal properties of the Jamaican pepper plant Pimenta dioica and Allspice.” Curr Drug Targets. 2012 Dec;13(14):1900-6. doi: 10.2174/138945012804545641.
Zheng J, et al. “Dietary capsaicin and its anti-obesity potency: from mechanism to clinical implications.” Biosci Rep. 2017 May 11;37(3):BSR20170286. doi: 10.1042/BSR20170286. Print 2017 Jun 30.
Zou Yi, et al. “Oregano Essential Oil Improves Intestinal Morphology and Expression of Tight Junction Proteins Associated with Modulation of Selected Intestinal Bacteria and Immune Status in a Pig Model.” Biomed Res Int. 2016;2016:5436738. doi: 10.1155/2016/5436738. Epub 2016 May 29.