Herbs and Spices Add More Than Just Flavor to Your Diet

by Jeannie Versagli, RD

Beyond enhancing flavor to our favorite dishes, do spices and herbs have any health benefits?

Research over the last decade has revealed a diverse range of health properties from herbs and spices previously not recognized before. For example, studies have shown that some of these plants have properties that can aid in decreasing inflammation. Examples include turmeric, cardamom, and cinnamon when used on a regular basis.  Oregano, cumin, parsley, basil, curry powder, mustard seed and ginger all contain high amounts of antioxidants which assist in the reduction of oxidative stress in the body. Spices such as oregano, clove, thyme, cumin, and cinnamon provide antibacterial and antifungal properties that fight against food spoilage from bacteria like staphylococcus aureus, bacillus subtilis, and pseudomonas fluorescens. A number of these herbs have been around for hundreds of years and have been used in foods for just these purposes. Using herbs and spices in cooking can create an opportunity to decrease the use of salt, fats, and sugar, resulting in healthier recipes through these substitutions. Did you know, consumption of spicy foods is linked to a lower risk of death from cancer, ischemic heart, and respiratory system diseases?

 A word of caution: consuming herbs and spices in greater amounts than involved in every day cooking can have adverse effects on the body. It is possible that in large quantities, some herbs may interact with various prescribed pharmaceuticals and or particular health conditions. Therefore, it is important to contact your physician prior to you starting any new supplements. In addition, herb and spice supplements are not regulated by the FDA.  

Look for the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, NSF International, and ConsumerLab.com seals sign on supplement products; these indicate that the product has passed each organization’s quality test.





tasty spices sold in market

What are 5 common spices used in cooking and their specific health properties?

  • Cinnamon- reduces blood sugar, cholesterol and triglycerides when incorporated into the diet.
  • Turmeric – reduces inflammation in the brain.
  • Ginger- relieves nausea from motion sickness and aid in preventing nausea with chemotherapy.
  • Garlic-boosts heart health.
  • Cayenne- eases pain by reducing the number of pain signals sent to the brain.


What classifies an herb and or spice?

The essential difference between an herb and a spice is where it is obtained from the plant.  Herbs usually come from the leafy part of a plant and can be eaten dried or fresh.  Spices come from the seeds, fruits, roots, or bark of plants.  Although herbs and spices have been around for centuries, scientist are finally beginning to prove their important contributions to health beyond use in the kitchen.

Early in the 19th century chemists began to extract and modify the active ingredients from herb/spice plants for use in modern medicine.  As time went on, these chemists synthesized their own version of the plant compounds in their labs. Today almost one fourth of pharmaceutical drugs are derived from botanicals (herbs and spices). The World Health Organization estimates that 80 percent of the population worldwide relies on herbs for their medicinal properties as part as their primary health care.  Who knew!


Three bowls in a line. Each bowl from left to right contains a more dried, processed variant of the same green herb

Dried herbs verses fresh – is there a difference?

Fresh herbs offer a delicate flavor and should be added at the end of the recipe, where dried herbs are best used at the start of the recipe to better develop their flavors. 

Herbs lose some nutritional value through the drying process and fresh herbs lose nutrients while sitting on the grocer shelf and or in your refrigerator.  Despite the loss of certain nutrients from fresh to dried herbs, the ORAC value of equivalent amounts of dried verses fresh herbs are about the same and suggest that both are a significant source of antioxidants. ORAC stands for Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity. It is a lab test that attempts to quantify the “total antioxidant capacity” (TAC) of a food. 

So, the way in which you decide what herbs to use is dependent on what the recipe calls for. The ratio to switch out fresh to dry or dry to fresh is one tablespoon of fresh herbs to one teaspoon of dried herbs. Both dried herbs and fresh herbs provide nutritional bonus to your dish. The takeaway is that adding herbs and spices to your foods will decrease salt and calories while increasing the nutritional value.  Once again, we see the value of foods in providing a path to wellness.



Did you know

  • Holy Basil, also known as tulsi, has been shown to increase immunity, which may help fight viral infections.
  • Turmeric has been used as a medical herb for 4,00 years.
  • Grapeseed extract contains the same antioxidants found in wine.
  • Cumin is one of the most popular spices in the world.
  • Oregano is widely used in the Mediterranean world.
  • Allspice was discovered by Christopher Columbus on his journey around the Caribbean islands.
  • Herbs and spices often were mixed in a homeopathic recipe for relief from illnesses years ago. 
  • Basil is a member of the mint family.

As you prepare your meals, try and incorporate herbs and spices into your recipes; this is yet another way in which one can enhance the body’s wellness.  Nutrition is your path to wellness.

Bon Appetite

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