Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
26 Apr

6 Common Herbs and Why You Should Eat Them (Hint: They Don’t Just Taste Good)

We typically think of culinary herbs as useful flavorants. They round out flavor profiles, add complexity to otherwise basic dishes, meld with other herbs to form novel taste compounds that you can’t quite place and cannot be replicated with any other combination, and, used with a subtle, skilled hand, simply make food taste incredible. Oh, and like most seemingly inconsequential things people have been adding to food for thousands of years, they also happen to have some fascinating health benefits. Huh – how about that? Things that taste good and have a long and storied culinary history might also be good for you? Amazing how that works out!

Let’s get down to it.


Rosemary goes well with just about anything, in my experience, which is odd, because it’s one of the most pungent, powerful herbs in existence. Some herbs just kinda linger in the background, maybe adding a slight change to the bouquet of a dish but never really distinguishing themselves, but when rosemary’s around, you know it. You can’t avoid it. Heck, even walking around most neighborhoods you’re liable to find a massive rosemary bush trying to evolve into a rosemary tree.

What’s so great about rosemary, besides the flavor and smell? Rosemary-infused olive oil displayed the strongest resistance to oxidative damage and rancidity, beating out herbs such as thyme, lemon, and basil (although both thyme and lemon improved stability, too). In healthy volunteers, oral rosemary extract improved endothelial dysfunction (perhaps due to up-regulation of glutathione, eh?). Rosemary extract also improved the oxidative stability of butter, and it inhibited the formation of heterocyclic aromatic amines (a potential carcinogen) in fried beef patties.


Rosemary’s great, but I find it even greater with a bit of thyme involved. If you have the time, I’d definitely use both in concert. Okay, that was bad; I apologize.

Thyme, however, is worth using, awful jokes aside. I mean, what else but thyme could stave off the oxidative damage done to corn oil under deep-frying conditions for a couple extra hours? Sure, you’re not eating corn oil, but that same lipid-stabilizing accumen would probably work awfully well for, say, butter. And for those who enjoy the classic rosemary/thyme/garlic rub on your lamb, keep an eye out for lamb borne to thyme-fed pregnant ewes, which exhibits greater oxidative stability, lower bacterial counts, and better color. No word on whether it influences taste.


Sage is under appreciated. Brits have always used it in their cooking, and Mom probably uses it to season her turkey stuffing, but that’s about it. I like it, but I’ll admit that it can be overpowering; you only need a pinch, or a few leaves, meaning most of the bunch you bought for $2 at the market goes to waste. One solution is to grow your own. Another is to freeze or dry the leftovers. Either way, it’s worth using on poultry and fatty cuts of meat (think big juicy roasts).

Sage is rich with rosmarinic acid, an antioxidant found in many common culinary herbs that (surprise, surprise) protects fats against oxidative damage. In humans who drank sage tea for several weeks, endogenous antioxidant defenses were up-regulated and the lipid profile was improved (HDL increase). Perhaps most interestingly, a sage extract was used to improve memory and attention in healthy older subjects. It also seems to work on memory in healthy younger subjects, too.


Everyone loves something about mint, in my experience. They may hate the classic spearmint, but love peppermint (a hybrid of spearmint and watermint). They may hate the taste, but love the smell (or vise versa). They might be scared of Santa and his creepy elves, but the allure of the candy cane draws them to his expansive lap. They may hate getting hair cuts, but cannot resist the hypnotic swirl of the barber’s pole.

As for its health benefits, peppermint oil was more effective than placebo at treating irritable bowel syndrome, a meta-analysis of the clinical literature found, and it was equally effective as pharmaceutical treatments. Also, though it was a very brief trial, spearmint leaf tea showed promise as an anti-androgen treatment for hirsutism (abnormal hairiness) in polycystic ovarian syndrome in female subjects.


Ah, basil. Pesto uses it. Thai cooks will sometimes stir-fry it. I like nibbling on raw leaves, from time to time. It’s one of those herbs with a flavor so distinct that its usage is severely limited. That is, you can’t just add basil to everything and expect the dish to taste good, but when it works, it’s a thing of beauty. Go get yourself a plant or a bagful. The good thing about basil is that it freezes well, so don’t worry about wasting it.

And basil does some cool stuff, too. In hypertensive rats, sweet basil reduced blood pressure. In diabetics, holy basil reduced both fasting and post-prandial blood glucose. And as is usual with the herbs, basil displays some protective attributes against fatty acid oxidation.


US soldiers returning home after World War II carried with them a fondness for the “pizza herb” – oregano. We at MDA prefer to call it the “meatza herb,” but you get the point: it’s a good ally in the kitchen.

Oregano is a strange herb in that its dried form confers a more potent taste than the fresh leaves, so don’t feel too bad about using the dried stuff. It works just fine, and it retains most of its antioxidant capacity even when dry as a bone. And a bountiful, impressive antioxidant capacity it is, what with its ability to reduce the formation of carcinogenic and atherogenic compounds when added to cooking hamburger meat. Malondialdehyde levels were also reduced in plasma and urine samples taken from those who ate the meat.

What can we gather from this quick look at just a few of the most common culinary herbs? Well, herbs confer a lot of benefits to the cooking process. They make it taste good for one, but they also protect the fats from oxidation during cooking, making them perfectly paired with fatty foods – like herbed cheeses, herbed butters, lamb legs studded with rosemary and thyme, butter or cream sauce reductions with a dash of herbs, and herb-infused olive oils.

A Few Herby Tips

  • Use a wide variety of herbs.
  • Never use too much of any single herb at once.
  • Try different blends.
  • Grow some fresh herbs and keep plenty of dried on hand.
  • Let your taste buds guide you.
  • Add herbs when cooking fats; this won’t just protect the fat from oxidation, but it will also provide the best flavor.
  • Feed your pregnant ewe plenty of thyme.

What’s your favorite herb? There are dozens out there, and I’m sure each has its own set of health benefits. Anything else you’d like to know about herbs? Tell me in the comment board and I’ll see about a follow-up post!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Jeez, I think you covered all of my favorites. I keep thinking that someday I’ll get sick of sea-salt/oregano or sea-salt/rosemary, but it hasn’t happened yet.

    Jim Arkus wrote on April 26th, 2011
  2. My Greek friend who grew up on an island in the Cyclades swears that the lamb and goat only required a little salt and pepper before cooking. The reason: they grazed on thmye, oregano and rosemary which grows natively all over the islands.

    John Jehosephat wrote on April 26th, 2011
    • My best friend who I have known my entire life is Greek. Small world, eh?

      I will have to ask him about “greek lamb” myself. Even if they grazed on those herbs I don’t seem to taste them in the meat.

      I enjoyed a leg of lamb on Easter Sunday. We threw on some garlic and cinnamon. You may think this is a weird combination but it turned out awesome!

      We enjoyed with homemade sweet potato fries (olive oil, sea salt baked in the oven!) and green beans with butter. My family enjoyed an apple pie dessert. I had a few bites of the apples in cinnamon and 2 blocks of my dark chocolate.

      Eating primal on holidays is becoming easier and easier.

      Primal Toad wrote on April 27th, 2011
      • you got me with “Greek Lamb”…oregano, rosemary, thyme, olive oil and lemon juice! Then roasted to perfection – can taste it now :)

        Elen Kay wrote on February 1st, 2016
  3. I love herbs in salads. The standard romaine and mesclun mix found in most salads can get so plain and boring after a while. I like to add mint and basil to my salads.

    jinushaun wrote on April 26th, 2011
  4. Chives! I have a window box of chives I’ve been growing for several years now. It goes dormant in the late winter and by early spring it is in full force. Great addition to eggs, roasted winter squashes, infused butter, and add fresh to anything with onion to help enhance the flavor.

    Bonnie wrote on April 26th, 2011
    • Thanks for the tip about window boxing chives! I’m about to get a home herb garden set up and you’re right, they’re excellent in just about everything!

      Nutritionator wrote on April 27th, 2011
  5. Great post.
    I’ve got a mad mix of herbs growing around my trees and in my garden. If you have the patience, making a few small 18″ x 18″ x 4″ deep boxes (or start them in empty plastic meat trays or whatever you can find – a little space for roots is a good idea) to start seeds in can be very rewarding. A pack of seeds will start you at least 50 plants – and costs around $1.50. One herb plant in a pot costs around $3.50. All you need is to take a little thyme, er, time, and scatter seeds on the top of a box of potting soil… plant ’em out to individual pots or in the garden as they get bigger… and you can populate your landscaping with dirt-cheap and tasty herbs. That said… now I want some sage tea.

    Vidad wrote on April 26th, 2011
    • Keep your extra seeds in a sealed container with a desiccant packet in a dark place and they will be good for several years past the expiration date on the package. My $1 packet of basil seeds is five years old and had about an 80% germination rate this year.

      Keith wrote on April 26th, 2011
      • That’s incredibly good. Thanks for the tip.

        Vidad wrote on April 26th, 2011
    • How do you make sage tea? How would you make mint ea??

      Suzanne wrote on April 27th, 2011
      • fresh sage leaves in cup, pour over hot water, steep few minutes, pull out leaves – drink. works for virtually any herb – just gotta see how strong you want it – ie – how much herb, time steeping.

        we drink thyme, sage and mint teas from the garden almost daily–

        Ravi wrote on April 28th, 2011
  6. Just curious what you mean when you warn, “Never use too much of any single herb at once.” Danger of overdose? Culinary law? I mean, can you REALLY eat too much basil? When it comes to fresh herbs, I say, eat as much as tastes great…

    Ariana wrote on April 26th, 2011
    • That’s all I mean by it, Ariana. No health threat, just that herbs can quickly overpower a dish.

      Mark Sisson wrote on April 26th, 2011
      • i totally over rosemary’d some dish the other day. have to be more cautious with that…

        shz wrote on April 26th, 2011
      • Actually, you can overdose on certain culinary herbs. Rosemary can cause miscarriage and both basil and sage are toxic in large amounts. Not a problem with the amounts typically used in culinary applications, but there is such a thing as a toxic level. If you use enough herb for it to start tasting very bitter, be wary.

        Also, I use sage tea as a headache remedy for tension headaches.

        Jenn wrote on April 26th, 2011
        • There is a toxic level with all foods. But, unless you are crazy, its easy to know what is too much. If you eat basil every single day for the rest of your life then you may have problems.

          I would hope that most, if not all, people understand this. Who would even want to eat basil every single day?

          Primal Toad wrote on April 26th, 2011
        • Not true. Saturated fat has has no toxicity.

          Luther wrote on April 26th, 2011
        • Saturated fat is not a food. Its a nutrient :)

          Primal Toad wrote on April 26th, 2011
        • I was told to take sage tea when I stopped nursing one of my children, it’s supposed to dry up the milk, so I suppose you’d want to be careful with that if you were breastfeeding too.

          herbert wrote on May 17th, 2011
        • Actually my son eats basil every day and loves it. This article popped up as I am curious as to how much is too much.

          Stephanie wrote on April 19th, 2012
    • Culinary rule. A little seasoning judiciously applied is always better than the alternative.

      Keith wrote on April 26th, 2011
  7. Don’t forget about one of my favorite herbs…Cilantro/Coriander!

    Don wrote on April 26th, 2011
  8. I have yet to taste a herb that I don’t like. We grew a huge basil plant last year at home. Oh how sweet it was to step on the deck, go a few feet and pick a few fresh basil leaves to throw on my big ass salad. The flavor was awesome.

    We also grew oregano but that was annoying because the leaves are so damn small.

    We grew mint too and that was super nice – bigger leaves!

    Primal Toad wrote on April 26th, 2011
  9. Just a note…although I think you were making a joke, Mark. The barber pole is a medieval tradesmen’s sign, that represents a leeching staff, with blood running down it in rivulets.

    In ancient times, the barber was a village surgeon, and would lance boils, pull teeth and perform minor surgeries, including leeching and bloodletting. In fact a synonym for the archaic usage of barber is Leech (know anyone with that surname?)

    During bloodletting, the patient would lean on or grip a staff to force more blood out of the cuts, and it would trickle down the staff to a bronze collection bowl. Very old style barber poles used to be capped in bronze or brass bowls on the top and bottom representing the bowl that held the leeches and the bowl that caught the blood.

    Futureboy wrote on April 26th, 2011
  10. Really interesting post. The info about thyme being the cause of greater oxidative stability in lamb was completely unknown to me.

    Personally, the I usually try to keep it simple by only using Basil and Oregano, which has worked fairly well. Nonetheless, when I decide to branch out, this post will be the first thing I consult.

    Jeremy Priestner wrote on April 26th, 2011
  11. If I have too much sage or dill I will blend one of the herbs in the food processor with a couple of sticks of room-temp butter. Then, I freeze the butter in ice cube trays and store the cubes in a labeled bag in the freezer. If I want dill butter for my steamed broccoli I just throw in a cube. Sage for my roasted butternut squash soup? Two cubes usually are the perfect amount.

    The same method can be done with basil and plain olive oil, as well as basil that is pureed into pesto for a variety of Italian inspired dishes.

    Crunchy Pickle wrote on April 26th, 2011
    • Awesome idea! Thanks Crunchy Pickle!

      Robin wrote on April 27th, 2011
    • Basil pesto is a freezer staple at the end of the season here in the midwest. I grow enough to savor all winter.
      I moved to a new location last summer and have the best herb garden I’ve ever in my entire gardening history. I’m going to plant them all around the yard this year.I bring rosemary and thyme inside in the winter. I love herbs. I’m going to try some differnt tea using some of the above mentioned. Native Americans drink sage tea during ceremonies.

      Jodi wrote on April 28th, 2012
  12. Wonderful article! Mint is especially a godsend.

    When my IBS was at its worst, I saw quite a few doctors, including a gastroinetrologist (digestive specialist); and none of them could cure my continual upset stomach. I had to do a lot of elimination dieting to remove all the potential irritants, and I lost so much weight my parents thought I had some sort of cancer.

    Then one day my dad discovered herbal remedies like peppermint oil and ginger. They were in capsule form and they made me feel exponentially better. I could eat without being in pain!

    We also discovered later that I was fructose intolerant.

    So yes, mint! Yay for mint!

    Danielle wrote on April 26th, 2011
    • My cousin has IBS, I will have to tell him about this. What dosage did you take of the peppermint and the ginger Danielle?

      Robin wrote on April 27th, 2011
  13. Delighted to say that I’ve got all of these thriving in my back garden right now!

    Bransby wrote on April 26th, 2011
    • Me too. Do we get some kind of cool Grok Award for that?

      Vidad wrote on April 26th, 2011
  14. Love all those herbs and I’d add Cilantro and Dill too. Most herbs can be easily grown on a kitchen windowsill for use all year.

    Katie @ Wellness Mama wrote on April 26th, 2011
  15. I had no idea of the anti-oxidative properties of these herbs, thanks Mark! New Rule: mixed herbs with the fats.

    skookum wrote on April 26th, 2011
  16. I can vouch for oregano being better dried – I have some that is doing amazingly well in the garden, but a massive handful in a roast did very little for the flavour. Also, if anyone can successfully grow thyme pease share your secrets – I have one twig surviving from a whole packet of seeds!

    NorthernMonkeyGirl wrote on April 26th, 2011
    • My thyme is doing well. It was slow to germinate so I wondered about it, but it is green and coming up slowly.

      I used the square foot gardening method. It requires raised beds and “Mel’s mix.” 1/3 compost, 1/3 vermiculite, and 1/3 peat moss. I germinated the seeds in the ground. Also, I live in the south, so the weather is fairly warm.

      Omni wrote on April 26th, 2011
    • I think thyme likes well drained soil. Mine grows on a north facing slope but gets sun in a sandy, gravely soil on top of loam. I never water it but we do get pretty regular rain in summer. I don’t water it in drought conditions either. Occasionally it doesn’t rain for a month or so. It also survives fine in our snowy zone 5 winters.

      I originally had one plant but it comes up on it’s own periodically in various places. I think any sunny but well drained place would fine.

      Sharon wrote on April 27th, 2011
    • I put in 2 varieties of thyme I purchased from home depot. This was at least three years ago! I use the herb all year round, even when it is sub-zero temps. All I have done is water it and clear dead leaves away on occasion. Perhaps it is the soil. Well-drained and maybe slightly sandy. I live in Southern Colorado.

      Barbara wrote on May 2nd, 2011
    • Thyme is one where you might do better putting in a started plant.

      Anyway, as others have said, Thyme likes drainage, and does not like to be over-watered. It also does not like root competition and needs good air circulation. Basically, conditions close to Mediterranean! Keep it in a sunny place that drains well and is well weeded and with bare soil around it. If your soil is too clay consider growing it in a pot.

      Amber wrote on May 10th, 2011
  17. My parent’s billy goat decided to start eating chicken eggs that he finds laying around. They doctored some eggs with a bunch of very hot pepper flakes but the goat kept eating. I suggested that they find a recipe for pre-spiced goat meat. Kinda like thyme-fed lamb……..?

    Dawn wrote on April 26th, 2011
  18. Interestingly most cultures or cuisines seem to have a dish which is heavy with green stuff – herbs or vegetables. Take pesto as already discussed, or tabouleh in the middle east with all the parsley, or spinach and feta pie in Greece. In Vietnam cooking you get a small forest of herbs with for example Pho – their famous soup, or in Thai Beef salad which is full of coriander and mint. Maybe traditional food cultures knew a lot before it was ever studied. I love all these dishes

    GosfordGirl wrote on April 26th, 2011
  19. I have all of those growing in my herb garden at the side of my house (there are three different kinds of mint, as a matter of fact) along with chives and tarragon. In fact, the sage, chives and Greek oregano are threatening to take over our side lawn.

    This summer, we will see the addition of parsley, both curly and Italian, along with cilantro, lemon basil, Thai basil and pineapple sage. I looooove my herb garden!!

    Jan wrote on April 26th, 2011
  20. I’m a mint girl and also love herb mix salads. YUM!

    PrettyPauline wrote on April 26th, 2011
  21. One of my favorite herbs is Italian parsley. It’s easy to grow, is quite healthful, and tastes great (unlike the bitter curly kind).

    inquisitiveone wrote on April 26th, 2011
  22. Even now that I live in the city again, and our growing season is very short…I always have fresh herbs growing on the porch, in pots, on the kitchen windowsill, wherever. I love to snip and cook! I have used oregano (oil) before as an antibiotic with good results. Love fresh sage too, I don’t think people appreciate it enough! Right now I have chives, thyme, oregano, sage, parsley and rosemary. Oh, and basil, duh. I would like to grow my own garlic, I use so damned much of it!

    juliemama wrote on April 26th, 2011
  23. I love sage when cooking pork. It’s the first thing I grab for when seasoning it(aside from garlic).

    Trishie wrote on April 26th, 2011
  24. “Some herbs just kinda linger in the background, maybe adding a slight change to the bouquet of a dish but never really distinguishing themselves, but when rosemary’s around, you know it”

    I had to giggle at Mark’s description quoted above. My middle name is Rosemary and this pretty much sums up my extroverted personality :-)

    Back to the actual herbs. I love the list that Mark has compiled above but I also use dill, marjoram and tarragon.

    Dill is an excellent partner for smoked salmon. I mix 2 tablespoons of finely chopped dill, 1 tablespoon of grated lemon rind, 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard and 4 tablespoons of good quality extra virgin olive oil. Whisk together and pour over some wild salmon or trout and finish with some ground black pepper. Delicious food to enjoy on the deck with a glass of vino.

    Carol wrote on April 26th, 2011
  25. There’s something called “mountain tea” – I believe it’s a sage – that we used in Greece for any kinds of cold or congestion issues. A steaming hot cup of that with a spoonful of honey was incredibly comforting and healing. I’ve seen it in import shops in both the US and AU as “mountain tea”. Well worth trying if you can find some!

    Shelli wrote on April 26th, 2011
  26. Maybe your oregano tastes more potent dried, but we grow Greek oregano that is so strong when fresh it would stop you in your tracks. It’s pretty robust when dried as well, but nearly overwhelming when fresh. Very nice with lemon & garlic on pork.

    jj wrote on April 26th, 2011
  27. grow my own indoors or outdoors…great in salads too…

    rik wrote on April 26th, 2011
  28. I have an oregano plant, I think I like taking care of it more so than eating it, since I forgot I had a large stash of dried that needed to be used up. Anyway, I liked the article and neat facts.

    Allie wrote on April 26th, 2011
  29. Hooray for herbs.. I love basil in an omelette.. to die for! So many combinations of herbs can make such great tasting meals!

    Karen wrote on April 26th, 2011
  30. Herbal medicine is as primal as medicine can get! I should freakin’ write a book about herbs for the primal pantry/medicine cabinet. There are many herbs that can support a primal lifestyle!

    Trysta wrote on April 26th, 2011
  31. I am growing all these herbs in my garden this year. My oregano is starting to fade though. Not sure if it’s the TX heat getting to it, bugs, or not enough water. What herbs are not heat tolerant? Also, don’t some herbs aid in garden pest control?

    CavemanGreg wrote on April 26th, 2011
  32. Is bacon a herb?

    I’m going to give growing herbs another go this year, but last time the local cats turned my box garden into a litter tray. Any (legal) suggestions to keep them away?

    Stevemidd wrote on April 27th, 2011
    • I’ve heard that covering the area with lava rocks will keep the cats from digging (and then pooping) in your garden.

      LXV wrote on April 27th, 2011
    • Cayenne pepper. If it gets on their paws it stings their nose and their tongue when they try to lick it off. I’ve used it indoors when I had a cat scratching where they shouldn’t. It works very nicely.

      Ingvildr wrote on April 27th, 2011
  33. And you left out Coriander? Great in salsa which is perfect with omelets. I just planted some in my garden because I just can’t get enough of it. But will try the basil with my eggs too – great idea!

    Victoria FERAUGE wrote on April 27th, 2011
  34. I love mint, basil, thyme…actually all of these. Now I know what to put in my herb garden this year…
    A recent discovery–dill! Love dill! So fresh and yummy, especially with eggs and on salads.

    Emily wrote on April 27th, 2011
  35. @CavemanGreg Garlic is a great natural pest controller and can be started from a store bought clove. Break apart the smaller cloves and plant. The stalks are like a super chive though it will take awhile for the bulb to grow.

    I have successfully started growth from fresh store bought herbs — except thyme — by sticking them in water. A few days on the window sill and roots start. This works really well with basil which is great for keeping summer fruit flies out of the kitchen.

    Max wrote on April 27th, 2011
  36. Some may already know of this seasoning, but I recently tried Za’atar for the first time at a Moroccan restaurant and love it.

    In its basic variety, it’s simply oregano, basil, thyme and maybe sage, along with cumin and salt, crushed into a slightly finer powder then they add some toasted sesame seeds. It’s dusted on the food before it’s served, and tastes amazing.

    You could easily make it yourself, and it packs in most of the above in one serving. GREAT with eggs!

    Primal Pig wrote on April 27th, 2011
  37. Being a sheep farmer, I’m interested in the study about feeding Thyme to pregnant ewes. Do the lambs need to be fed that thyme after weaning to maintain those results? Just curious if it’s too late to feed some to my crop of lambs this year. 😉

    Tory wrote on April 27th, 2011
  38. The first thing I did after I moved to my current house and started working on the yard was to fill 3 planters with organic potting soil and start a herb garden. Mint, chives, thyme, oregano, marjoram, sage, coriander, parsley, basil. Lovely stuff.

    I use pots rather than planting directly in the garden as the soil here is a bit poor and there’s a lot of very old fill underneath it. No clue as to what’s in it, so I’m erring on the side of caution and growing food in raised beds or containers, leaving the dirt for flowers.

    Hugh Mannity wrote on April 27th, 2011
  39. I use herbs in my green smoothie – basil, cilantro and parsley. You can use much less than if you were using kale or other greens, because they’re so concentrated.

    This lets you make the smoothie taste better without adding too much fruit or other sweetener.

    stan wrote on April 27th, 2011

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