Everyone is mostly familiar with herbs. We know they’re used for culinary, medicinal, and even spiritual endeavors, and have been for centuries past. But it can be difficult to distinguish one herb from the other when we’re standing at the local farmers market or grocery store, and to know why and how to use each one.
The word “herb” refers to a vast range of plants. Culinary herbs come from the leafy green part of plants, and are used to season and add some kick to everyday meals.
Herbs offer numerous health benefits:1
It may be hard to believe that a small amount of fresh herbs can have significant health benefits, but a little goes a long way — without drastically changing meal plans.
Studies show herbs doubling as tastemakers and medicine for centuries, and plant compounds called phytochemicals are the reason why. Phytochemicals found in herbs include flavonoids, terpenoids, lignans, sulfides, and carotenoids, and can potentially aid in reducing the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease.
The essential oils of everyday culinary herbs and herbals teas inhibit mevalonate synthesis, which suppresses tumor growth and cholesterol production.
Rosemary is native to southern Europe and comes from the mint family. It tastes delicious when crushed up in a trail mix with almonds, cranberries, and walnuts, or more traditionally on chicken, fish, lamb, pork, or potatoes. It is also a nice morning addition to veggie omelets.
Basil is also from the mint family and comes from tropical Asia. Classically, basil tastes amazing with tomatoes and mozzarella. Try it out alone or in a sandwich with low-fat cheese and sliced tomatoes, or just use it as the final addition to any veggies or a refreshing salad.
These come from the flax plant and have good monounsaturated fats, which keep blood pressure and cholesterol levels low, as well as lots of fiber and healthy omega 3 essential fatty acids. Flax seeds have potent antioxidant compounds to help fight chronic diseases.
Stir two tablespoons of ground flaxseed into everyday foods, like oatmeal, yogurt, soup, and smoothies. It can also be used as a flour substitute in baking by replacing ¼ to ½ cups of flour with flaxseed, for a recipe calling for 2 or more cups of flour.2 For those looking to drop some weight, flaxseed can also help in the process by acting as a natural bulking ally in food, giving a “fullness” feeling to keep from overeating.3
A member of the daisy family, there are different types of chamomile. While German chamomile is used primarily for medicinal purposes, Roman chamomile is used for culinary purposes, and can be eaten with baked potatoes and salads, and it can even be made into an herbal beer. More commonly, chamomile is used in the form of herbal tea. Studies show consuming chamomile tea revs the immune system and aids in fighting cold-related infections.4
An herb in the parsley family, Cilantro is one of the first herbs used by mankind. Cilantro is a superb additive for salsa, as well as any Mexican, Asian, or Caribbean-inspired dishes. Mix it in with eggs, healthy homemade chicken fajitas, or a veggie stir-fry. It should be crushed before use.
Oregano, another member of the mint family, is commonly used in Italian, French, and Greek cuisine. It comes from the Mediterranean and Eurasia. It tastes best when added to foods like pasta, chicken, beef and tomatoes.5 Add it to both store-bought and homemade marinara sauces, stews and egg dishes, or top off your homemade pizza with oregano.
Native to Europe, Thyme is also part of the mint family, and offers high levels of vitamin C and iron. It has been used since ancient years for its antibacterial and antifungal compounds.6 Thyme is one of the most versatile herbs around. Use dried thyme in salad dressings or spread it onto grilled veggies, instead of butter, or use it in a rub to cook fish, especially salmon. Add it to chicken soup or salad. At breakfast, mix 1/8 teaspoon of dried thyme into two scrambled eggs.
You can conveniently grow herbs in your home garden, including small potted herb gardens, or buy them at grocery stores and markets year-round in both dried and fresh form. Be sure to purchase dried herb brands with “best by” dates, and store them in airtight containers away from moisture and direct sunlight. Try to use them fairly soon after purchase, as active health-benefitting compounds will decrease with time. With fresh herbs, double the amount to reap the same amount of active compounds as dried herbs.
If you find a great recipe, or spice up a favorite dish, with herbs, let us know in a comment.