It’s solid health advice that we should all be eating lots of vegetables, but another group of health superstars in our kitchens tends to receive less attention. Pound for pound, some of the most nutritious and antioxidant-rich plants on the planet are humble culinary herbs. Plenty of research backs up the powerful nutrition of these plants. What’s even better? Some of the healthiest culinary herbs offer distinctive flavors that can amp up the quality of our meals.
Along with supporting general good health, eating herbs and spices regularly may help improve mental function and reduce the risk of cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other major health issues.
Chances are many of the world’s healthiest herbs and spices are already in your kitchen. While we couldn’t possibly list all the healthful culinary herbs, here’s a short list of standouts. These five culinary herbs are backed up by a lot of recent research, which shows a wide range of health benefits.
And here’s a bonus: These herbs are all widely used in world cuisine, especially in recipes from Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean. If you want to eat more of any of these herbs, you’ll find plenty of inspiration by looking for cookbooks featuring foods from India, China, Italy or Morocco.
Healthy Herbed Recipes
Rosemary: Reduce Carcinogens in Meat
One of the most compelling health claims for rosemary is surprisingly simple—when grilling meat, consider adding rosemary to reduce carcinogens. Evidence for this comes from a 2010 study in the Journal of Food Science, which found that rosemary extract added to hamburger patties helped reduce levels of heterocyclic amines (HCAs), carcinogens formed when meat is cooked at high temperatures. Researchers thought rosemary might be of benefit because of its antioxidant properties. Earlier studies have found it was also effective to rub dried rosemary on meat prior to cooking or to include rosemary in a marinade.
Other good stuff: Along with its antioxidant properties, rosemary is also antimicrobial, which means it may have benefits for food safety. A few recent animal studies have raised other interesting possibilities. One 2015 study conducted on mice found that food with rosemary extract helped decrease the risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome, and another found that rosemary tea acted as an antidepressant on mice. Rosemary is also used in aromatherapy, and a few studies on small groups of people have found that the scent may decrease stress and improve cognitive performance.
In the kitchen: The rosemary plant is an evergreen shrub native to the Mediterranean. It can be used fresh or dried. It’s especially associated with traditional Italian cooking and with grilled meat. Consider using rosemary in meat marinades, where it can potentially improve both health and safety.
Cinnamon: Balance Blood Sugar
One of the most exciting claims about cinnamon is that it may help people with diabetes. Although study results have been mixed, a 2013 meta-analysis found that cinnamon helped balance blood sugar, as well as lower cholesterol, in many people with diabetes. The impact on healthy people is less studied, but a 2011 meta-analysis also found that cinnamon has blood sugar benefits for those with prediabetes.
Other good stuff: Two related species go by the name cinnamon. Cassia cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia), or Chinese cinnamon, is more common in the grocery store. The other type is often called true cinnamon, or Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum). Diabetes research has focused more on cassia cinnamon, but true cinnamon also has potential beneficial effects. Both types rate well for anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. A 2013 study in the journal Plant Foods and Human Nutrition found that cinnamon’s antioxidant levels were still strong after cooking and the anti-inflammatory action did not appear to be affected.
In the kitchen: Although cinnamon is often associated with sweet foods in North America, elsewhere in the world cinnamon plays a crucial role in classic savory spice blends, such as Chinese five spice powder, Indian garam masala and French quatre épices. If you plan to consume lots of cinnamon, some experts recommend choosing true cinnamon; cassia cinnamon contains certain compounds that can potentially damage the liver in large amounts.
Turmeric: The Spice That Does it All
When putting this list together, I got in touch with Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council, to ask for his suggestions. His advice: “Don’t forget turmeric!” That’s a good tip, as turmeric has a whole host of benefits, many associated with the active ingredient, curcumin. How great is this compound? As one article in an Indian journal put it in 2010, “Extensive studies within the last half a century have demonstrated the protective action of curcumin in almost all the disorders of the body.” It goes on to list effects, including antimicrobial, anti-cancer and antidiabetic, among many others. That pretty well sums it up—curcumin is good for everything.
Other good stuff: It’s hard to sum up all the potential health benefits of turmeric (we’re going to try in a big feature next issue). For now, a few highlights: Turmeric benefits mental function. One study found that frequent consumption of curry, which contains turmeric, was linked with higher cognitive function in older adults. Treatment with turmeric may also lessen symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease in some patients, and has potential as a treatment for depression. Studies also show it can be used to treat osteoarthritis and that eating lots of curry can improve pulmonary function in older adults.
In the kitchen: The part of turmeric we eat is the dried and ground rhizome. It’s used extensively in South Asia, especially in curry, and also in the Middle East. Some experts have looked at whether curcumin might be more bioavailable when used in different preparations. Some suggest eating it along with black pepper and/or fat. Traditional curry recipes contain turmeric, pepper and fat.
Cloves: Antioxidant Superstar
While we may not eat many cloves in one sitting, they’re so powerful for their size that we don’t need much to benefit. When The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition did a survey of the 50 foods with the highest levels of antioxidants, ground cloves came in first on the list. Antioxidants help prevent some types of cell damage, which in turn can help protect us from diseases associated with oxidative stress, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Other good stuff: Cloves have anti-inflammatory properties, which is beneficial because low-level inflammation is implicated in many chronic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease. Cloves also have antibacterial properties, one reason their active ingredient (eugenol) is a traditional treatment for dental problems.
In the kitchen: Cloves are the dried flower buds of an evergreen tree native to Indonesia, and they’re usually ground before eating. Much like cinnamon, cloves are frequently associated with sweet dishes in American cooking, but elsewhere they’re often used in savory blends including five spice powder, garam masala and quatre épices.
You don’t need to worry about losing antioxidant power when cooking cloves. The same Plant Foods and Human Nutrition study that looked at cinnamon also examined cloves and found that, while cloves’ antioxidant levels do fall during cooking, they appear to rise again as cooked cloves are digested. More good news: The same study found that cloves’ anti-inflammatory action did not appear to decrease after cooking.
Garlic: Grow Gut Bacteria
Garlic has many health benefits, but one of the most unusual is that it’s one of the few foods considered to be a prebiotic—essentially the food eaten by probiotics, the healthful bacteria in our digestive tracts. By supporting these beneficial bacteria, garlic in turn helps support the many health benefits of a healthy microbiome (our population of beneficial bacteria), which current research indicates can help prevent chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes, as well as ward off mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
Other good stuff: Garlic also appears to help lower high blood pressure. A 2015 analysis of previous studies found garlic was a safe and effective treatment for hypertension. It’s also effective for lowering cholesterol, according to a 2013 meta-analysis. In addition, garlic has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and some evidence suggests it may decrease the risk of certain types of cancer, especially cancers of the gastrointestinal tract.
In the kitchen: With whole cookbooks and even restaurants devoted to garlic, garlic lovers probably don’t need a lot of help finding recipes. However you use it, here’s one tip to know: After you mince or press garlic, let it rest about 10 minutes before cooking. The health benefits in garlic come from a chemical reaction that happens once garlic is crushed or pressed, and you need to allow time for that to happen.
Stretch Your Taste Buds
If you want to eat more of the herbs featured in this article, you might find yourself reaching for recipes from different cooking traditions. Want to use more turmeric? Look to India for inspiration. For rosemary, try Italy. Here are a few suggested cookbooks to inspire you.
• Indian Vegetarian Feast by Anjum Anand
• Simply Ming: One-Pot Meals by Ming Tsai and Arthur Boehm
• Modern Mediterranean: Easy, Flavorful Home Cooking by Melia Marden
• Mediterranean Cooking by Pamela Clark
Megan Phelps is a freelance writer based in Lawrence, Kansas. Researching this article made her want to eat more curry.