Herbs are rich in phytochemicals – in particular antioxidants – which are thought to be good for heart health and cancer protection.
Herbs are the ideal ingredient for the health-conscious cook, giving you a wide variety of fabulous flavours without adding salt or fat. Herbs can turn an ordinary dish into something special.
Do you add a few sprigs of parsley to your meals, into the mashed potato or a salad, chopped fresh basil and oregano into spaghetti sauce? If you don't you are missing out on an incredibly simple way to improve your health.
The regular addition of herbs to meals not only enhances flavour but has health benefits too. Herbs have a long history in food and health in many cultures, such as the Mediterranean and Asian diets, where their inclusion is very much a way of life.
What is a herb?
Herbs are typically the whole leaves of plants that can be used in cooking to add flavour. Parsley, rosemary and basil are some of the common leafy herbs. Other parts of the plant that are used fresh are also generally classified as herbs, for example garlic, onions, and fennel bulbs.
Herbs could be called the first and most widely used functional foods thanks to the contribution they make to health. Think of herbs as part of the fruit and vegetable group.
The health benefits of herbs
Herbs are rich in phytochemicals (chemicals found in plant foods which are good for our health), in particular antioxidants.
Antioxidants are the body's internal bodyguards involving complex reactions that counteract some of the damaging effects of the vandals in the body (free radicals). The damage occurs inside the body through a process called oxidation (like the rusting of a car) that can't be seen.
These vandals are formed from the wear and tear of everyday life, workings of the body (growth, ageing and exercise) and pollutants (especially smoking). The antioxidant content of herbs compares favourably with other foods known for being rich in antioxidants – such as fruit and vegetables.
The combination of foods with herbs eaten together can enhance the overall antioxidant capacity of the meal. Research shows combinations of the bioactive compounds may be more potent in a mixed meal.
For example, adding just 3g of marjoram increases the antioxidant capacity of a salad by over 200%. Herbs rich in antioxidants include oregano, thyme, marjoram, mint, sage and rosemary.
The healthier option of reducing sodium and saturated fat in recipes can make some dishes bland. But the introduction of herbs replaces this lost flavour, introducing fresher, more palatable tastes.
The use of herbs as flavouring alternatives, replacing or reducing the amount of salt used, may explain their association with lowered blood pressure.
Eating garlic is thought to be heart healthy because it contains a compound that can help reduce total and LDL-cholesterol (often called bad cholesterol). The high antioxidant levels in some herbs have the potential to inhibit the oxidation of damaging LDL-cholesterol, providing further heart protection.
Lowering your intake of saturated fat is also key to reducing the risk of heart disease, and the inclusion of herbs in your cooking may help you achieve that.
The actions of some phytochemicals in herbs may help protect against oxidative stress and inflammation, which are both risk factors for cancers.
Lemongrass, basil, parsley, rosemary and mint (or their active constituents) have all been shown to have anti-carcinogenic properties in laboratory research; although that doesn't mean they'll prevent cancer in humans at normal amounts consumed.
Storing and preparing herbs
A potted herb should be treated like a potted plant: keep in daylight and don't let the soil dry out.
Herbs with stalks can be put in water or kept in a plastic bag – trap as much air as possible when you seal it; store in the bottom of the fridge.
Dried herbs: When using dried herbs use a sprinkle for mild flavours. Reseal jars tightly and store in a cool dark place.
Herb pastes: Sold in the chilled section of supermarkets with fresh herbs. Keep refrigerated.
Freeze-dried: These have all the benefits of fresh herbs with the convenience of dried.