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).1 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.23 Rosemary consistently enhances cognitive function in humans, possibly by improving oxygen utilization in the brain.4
Thyme staves off the oxidative damage done to corn oil under deep-frying conditions for a couple extra hours.5 Sure, you’re not eating corn oil, but that same lipid-stabilizing acumen 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.6 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.7 In humans who drank sage tea for several weeks, endogenous antioxidant defenses were up-regulated and the lipid profile was improved (HDL increase).8 Perhaps most interestingly, a sage extract was used to improve memory and attention in healthy older subjects.9 It also seems to work on memory in healthy younger subjects, too.10
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.11 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.12 It’s also very helpful as a pre-workout. Drinking peppermint water infused with peppermint oil can improve performance and increase your output.13
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.14 In diabetics, holy basil reduced both fasting and post-prandial blood glucose.15 And as is usual with the herbs, basil displays some protective attributes against fatty acid oxidation.16
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.17 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.18 Malondialdehyde levels were also reduced in plasma and urine samples taken from those who ate the meat.
Marjoram is related to oregano, and some cuisines even use them interchangeably, but for my money they’re different. Marjoram is a bit more floral, a bit lighter than oregano.
As for health effects, it will come as no surprise that marjoram reduces oxidation during cooking, can improve metabolic health and lipid profiles, and have an overall ameliorative effect on oxidative stress.19
Parsley is seriously underrated. It’s way more than a garnish that looks pretty on a plate. It’s the base for one of the best sauces on the planet: chimichurri. I even had a fantastic parsley pomegranate salad in Turkey that used parsley almost like chopped lettuce. If you have fresh parsley from the store or the market, store it like fresh flowers on the counter—keep the base of the plant in water.
The health effects of parsley aren’t as well-studied as rosemary, thyme, or oregano, but there are some. Adding parsley to eggs as they cook reduces the oxidation of cholesterol.20 It also shows antioxidant effects when used as a marinade for grilled meats.21 You can tell it’s good for you simply by chewing some. That vibrant freshness is unmistakable.
Creamy scrambled eggs or a buttery omelet served with a few hearty dashes of fresh chopped tarragon leaves is one of my favorite breakfasts. I don’t know why anise-redolent tarragon works so well with eggs, but it really does. It’s also a nice accompaniment to white fish.
There isn’t much published research into the health effects of tarragon, but my default assumption is that, like other herbs, it’s generally helpful when used in cooking.
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.
The most interesting part about herbs is they’re all good. No matter which one you choose, they all seem to help reduce the formation of carcinogenic compounds during cooking and confer a variety of benefits to exercise performance, cognitive function, and overall metabolic health.
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!
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.