History tells us that herbs and spices have been prized for use in healing, cosmetics, and flavoring food since 3500 BC. Ancient Egyptians considered them treasures, and those who controlled the spice trade were very wealthy. Empires have been won and lost in the historic battle to flavor our food and heal our bodies with peppercorns, turmeric, and mace. Today, herbs and spices are inexpensive, plentiful, and available at your local grocer, farmers market, or fresh from your own garden.
What is the difference between herbs and spices?
Herbs are obtained from herbaceous non-woody plants. Herbs often are used in larger amounts than spices in cooking and some, such as peppermint, have medicinal value. They originated from temperate climates, such as Italy, France and England. Examples of common herbs are basil, oregano, parsley, sage, oregano, chives and mint.
In contrast, spices are obtained form roots, flowers, fruits, seeds or bark. They are native to warm tropical climates and can be woody or herbaceous plants. Spices often are more potent and stronger flavored than herbs; as a result they typically are used in smaller amounts.1 Common spices include cinnamon (bark), ginger (root), nutmeg (seed), vanilla (undeveloped fruit of an orchid), turmeric (root) and cumin (seed).
Some plants are both herbs and spices. The herb cilantro is from the leaf of Coriandrum satvum, while the spice coriander is from the plant’s seeds. Luckily for us, herbs and spices not only enliven our taste buds but they have incredible powers to fight disease. In an age where two out of three Americans live with some form of chronic disease (cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis, cancer, obesity, and irritable bowel syndrome), many herbs and spices contain anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-carcinogenic and antioxidant compounds, and healing properties. Antioxidants are substances and nutrients in our food that attract unstable oxygen molecules called free radicals that can otherwise damage cells and cause diseases such as cancer. The Food Philosopher 2009 menu features at least nine disease-fighting herbs and spices, including basil (appetizer), turmeric (in curried fish), cumin and mint (in Raita), and oregano (in the grilled vegetables).
This popular culinary flavoring, a relative of peppermint and a heart-healthy herb, helps promote cardiovascular health because it contains the flavonoids orientin and vicenin. These plant compounds help prevent free radicals from oxidizing cholesterol in the blood stream, which in turn inhibits cholesterol build up in the blood vessels (preventing atherosclerosis whose end result can be a heart attack or stroke). Basil is also a very good source of the anti-oxidant vitamin A (through its concentration of carotenoids such as beta-carotene) and the mineral magnesium. The beta-carotene found in basil also lessens the progression of chronic disease by preventing free radical damage in the cells of the body. Magnesium helps to maintain healthy blood pressure by preventing abnormal blood clotting. In addition, the oil in fresh basil leaves has immune boosting antibacterial properties that help to combat viral infections.
Turmeric is a bright, deep yellow rhizome, similar in size and shape to its relative, ginger. It is mostly sold as a spice powder and the major ingredient in most commercial curries, contributing flavor as well as the yellow color. Both an anti-inflammatory and an antibacterial, turmeric has long been revered by many Asian cultures as a symbol of fertility. It also is used to aid digestion by fighting bacteria commonly responsible for infectious diarrhea. In India, turmeric is promoted as an anti-inflammatory herbal remedy and is said to produce fewer side effects than commonly used pain relievers. Some practitioners prescribe turmeric to relieve inflammation caused by arthritis, muscle sprains, swelling, and pain caused by injuries or surgical incisions. It is also promoted as a treatment for rheumatism and as an antiseptic for cleaning wounds. In addition, turmeric contains the antioxidant curcumin, which has been found to hinder the growth of mutated cells associated with cancer of the breast, skin, and colon, as well as lymphoma. Curcumin can kill cancer cells in laboratory tests and also has been found to shrink animal cancer tumors.2
Cumin is a small annual plant of the parsley family with a strong spicy, sweet aroma and a slightly nutty bitter taste. This spice, in powder or seed form, was used by the Egyptians 5,000 years ago and is popular today in highly spiced cuisines, such as Mexican, Indian and Middle Eastern. Cumin is widely used to ease stomach and gastrointestinal disorders because it stimulates the secretion of pancreatic enzymes that help with digestion and nutrient assimilation.3 Cumin is rich in iron, which is excellent for energy and keeping the immune system healthy. It is also a good source of manganese, a detoxifying antioxidant mineral in our body necessary for normal brain and nerve function.
There are over 18 species of this aromatic perennial and most contain menthol, a compound known for its cooling analgesic and anesthetic (pain relieving) qualities. Essential mint oils and mint teas are used to treat indigestion, respiratory problems, headache, nausea, fever, stomach and bowel spasms and pain. Fresh mint leaves contain the nonnutritive dietary component perillyl alcohol. In animal studies it has been shown to regress pancreatic, mammary, and liver tumors, to exhibit possible cancer prevention applications (chemopreventative) for colon, skin, and lung cancer, and as a chemotherapeutic agent for neuroblastoma (cancer of the nerve tissue), and prostate and colon cancer. Perillyl alcohol is active in killing tumor cells without affecting normal cells and can revert tumor cells back to a differentiated state.4 Fresh mint is rich in Vitamin A, C, B12, thiamine, folic and riboflavin. The leaves also contain manganese, copper, potassium, iron and calcium.
This bushy spicy perennial not only makes a beautiful edible ground cover but, a recent Department of Agriculture study shows oregano offers more antioxidant activity than other cooking herbs. On a per gram fresh weight basis, oregano leaves have 42 times more antioxidant activity than apples, 30 times more than potatoes, 12 times more than oranges and 4 times more than blueberries. It also contains the flavonoid quercetin, which may protect against breast, ovarian and endometrial cancers.5 The volatile oils in this spice include thymol and carvacrol, both of which have been shown to inhibit the growth of bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus. Two teaspoons of oregano provide us with a very good dietary source of iron, manganese and fiber, as well as a good source of calcium, vitamin C, vitamin A and omega-3 fatty acids.
- 1. Spicer, F. (2003). Herbs versus spices. Horticulture and Home Pest News. Iowa State University Extension Service IC-489(21). Accessed August 28, 2009 from http://www.ipm.iastate.edu/ipm/hortnews/2003/8-22-2003/herbsnspices.html.
- American Cancer Society (2008). Turmeric. Accessed August 31, 2009 from http://www.cancer.org/docroot/ETO/content/ETO_5_3X_Turmeric.asp.
- Clevely, A., Richmond, K., Morris, S., & Mackley, L. (1997). The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices. Hermes House: NYC, NY.
- Belanger, J.T. (1998). Perillyl alcohol: applications in oncology. Alternative Medical Review 3(6): 448-57. Accessed August 31, 2009 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9855569
- Capecka, E., Mareczek, A., & Leja, M. (2005). Antioxidant activity of fresh and dry herbs of some Lamiaceae species. Food Chemistry 93(2): 223-226.