Indeed, your herb garden (or spice rack, for those who prefer the convenience of dried) may be a source of more than aromatic seasonings.Modern scientists are re-discovering what many ancient herbalists claimed: that certain herbs contain compounds that might have useful biological effects. Bonus: by enhancing flavor, herbs can help you reduce the salt and excessive fat in your cooking.
Here’s a round up of the most commonly used herbs in cooking plus the low-down on the beneficial nutrients:
Parsley: Though often dismissed as a nutrition zero, parsley packs the punch of a nutrition hero. A mere quarter cup contains 300% vitamin K (a nutrient that may help reduce the risk of fractures) while providing an excellent sources of vitamins A and C.In addition, parsley contains the phytochemical myristicin, which animals studies have shown inhibit tumor formation, particularly in the lungs.Parsley is also a top source of the flavonoid apigenin, which may also help support breast, prostate, colon, skin and thyroid health.
Sage: If your recipes regularly contain pinches of this savory herb you’ll likely recall reading stories about memory-boosting benefits of sage. British researchers recently found phytochemicals in sage that protect a neurotransmitter (known as acetylcholine) that helps your brain make the proper connections. Forty-four study subjects under forty years of age had faster recall on memorized word lists after ingesting sage. The velvety, rabbit ear-like leaves of sage may do more than help you remember those tip-of-the-tongue tidbits. Sage might deserve a place in your anti-Alzheimers arsenal: Those suffering from this common form of dementia have correspondingly low levels of acetylcholine.
Rosemary: Move over, vitamin E! Rosemary’s baby (called Rosemarinic acid), may have similar antioxidant effects as vitamin E. The piney, pungent, pointy leaves of rosemary have made more headlines recently: Kansas State University researchers found that adding rosemary to ground beef barred (by up to 60%) the formation of potentially cancer-causing compounds formed when meat is grilled.
Thyme: Thymol found in thyme oil, has antiseptic properties, showing up on the ingredient lists of products like Listerine and Vick’s VapoRub. Medics also made use of thyme’s antibacterial properties to cleanse wounds during WWI. Like Rosemary, thyme may help reduce levels of the carcinogenic heterocyclic amines (HCAs) hamburgers make under high heat.
Cilantro: If you’ve been knocking back too much tequila, more cilantro in your salsa might help liver function, in lab research. A much more flavorful cousin of parsley, cilantro contains a compound (coriandrol) which Indian researchers found may help halt the progression of liver cancer by preventing a particular toxin from damaging the liver’s DNA. Another cilantro phytochemical, dodecenal, could prove to be a safe, natural weapon against foodborne disease such as Salmonella, according to a joint study by Mexican and U.S. researchers. Fun fact: the spice coriander comes from the seeds of the cilantro plant.
Oregano: Though ubiquitous as an Italian seasoning, oregano stands out in antioxidant prowess. Gram per gram, dried oregano has thirty times the polyphenol capacity of blueberries according to the USDA’s list. California researchers backed by the USDA also found in lab studies that certain oregano compounds can kill harmful microbes such as E coli and staph aureus (a bacteria which, if untreated, can cause serious infection).
Basil: Presto pesto! While basil may be best known for flavoring pestos and pasta sauce, its compound eugenol effectively blocks COX enzymes in basic research, possibly helping to reduce the kind of inflammation that can be so harmful to heart health. Bursting with carotenoids, bunches of basil might support immunity, eye health and brain cell communication.
Mint: Researchers at the University of Salford, Manchester have identified a phytochemical in mint that can inhibit cancerous tumor growth in vitro by destroying the blood vessels that feed the tumor, a promising result if confirmed by human trials, expected to commence very soon. Mint also contains menthol, a phytochemical often used as a mild antiseptic for minor throat irritations.
Published May 1, 2006