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)

herbsWe 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

rosemary

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.

Thyme

thyme

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

sage

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.

Mint

mint

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.

Basil

basil

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.

Oregano

oregano

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:

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  1. Thank god – no Bay Leaf on that list. I hate that stuff – suspect it’s really a toxic substance!

    All the herbs listed – love them. Thanks for the post. Now if I could just learn to love to cook…

    Anne wrote on April 27th, 2011
  2. I use herbs because they make it taste better. IDGAF about health reasons, because I have a healthy lifestyle anyway! Chut up.

    Jzoe wrote on April 27th, 2011
  3. When my mother made tabboulah I found out I love the bitterness of parsely. I have grown cilantro but it always bolts when the weather gets warm. I would love to have a patch of mint but it takes over the yard. I have lemon balm growing wild in my yard and I use it for bedtime tea with my kids.

    There are a lot of herbal websites online. I bought a board game for my kids called Wildcrafting from learningherbs.com. It is a fun game that teaches you how to recognize weeds that are good for food or healing. Even kids too young to read can play. I found out lambsquarters is delicious! And it was growing right in my garden.

    Right now they are selling a culinary herbalism class. http://www.culinaryherbalism.com/sp/4732-fe4732

    ValerieH wrote on April 27th, 2011
  4. I use my home grown oregano all the time in my salads and my work friends are always saying how good my salads look and smell so fragrant – I let the oregano grow until just before it starts to flower, I cut and tie the bunches and dry them on my back porch, I’ve used them on presants as decoration and part of the gift – my friends love it and use it. I’m trying to grow thyme in my ditch out in front of my house as it is beautiful and fragrant to walk on.

    ML wrote on April 27th, 2011
  5. I also grow cilantro, but it is tricky as it is an annual, so… I grow and cut it according to my needs and then I let it go to seed and plant the seeds to have an ongoing garden of cilantro going all the time. It helps if you live in a warm climate, which I don’t, but if you plant the seeds in the fall and let it winter, they will come up in the spring and you can start again.

    ML wrote on April 27th, 2011
  6. 2 of my favorites are cumin and cardamom. All herbs need to be fresh and please invest in a mortar and pestle. It’s a world of difference between dried bottled herbs and fresh ground herbs.

    Abby wrote on April 27th, 2011
  7. I use basil and rosemary pretty routinely. I also love lemongrass stalks. They are a woody stalk and when you crush the stem and add it to tea or crockpot chicken it adds the most amazing lemon-herb flavor. Not sure about it’s antioxidant profile but I adore it!

    Pamann wrote on April 27th, 2011
  8. Breastfeeding mothers should NOT drink sage tea. It will dry up your breastmilk. Sage sprinkled on meat or something is fine as it is a small amount. Large amounts, like in tea, are to be avoided until after weaning.

    Jennifer wrote on April 27th, 2011
  9. A very pleasant experience is steeped tarragon tea.Add a frest sprig to the finished product.It is so good,it’s like crack to me.

    John Wells wrote on April 28th, 2011
  10. I LOVE sage! My favorite use: fry some pork chops seasoned with salt & pepper. When they’re done, remove from the pan and fry some whole sage leaves (add more oil if needed). Yum! Now I can’t wait for my new sage plants to grow!

    Lisa wrote on April 28th, 2011
  11. Thanks for such useful information. If you would like recipes that are healthy and healing then please visit our website http://www.workoutathome.co.uk and have a look at the section on Nutrition. We know that a healthy diet with exercise improves feelings of well-being which is why we also offer personal training. A personal trainer will not only design an exercise programme for you, they can offer advice when it comes to healthy eating aswell. All our personal trainers are mobile, so there is the added advantage of convenience.

    Riana wrote on April 28th, 2011
  12. I love the smell of fresh rosemary. It’s such a treat to crush a leaf and breathe in that fresh, crisp aroma. I’ve also learned to sprinkle it on meats when I grill to help neutralize carcinogens. What a great herb!

    Val wrote on April 28th, 2011
  13. Hey Mark,

    Love herbs,your training/health philosophy and “Marks Daily Apple”.

    My favorite herb is cilantro, and we can even grow it up North in Newfoundland – our beautiful island in the Atlantic Ocean.

    Bet herbs will help us snowboard, and body surf better too! And I miss body surfing at Zuma beach.

    Hope you and family are well.

    Keep up the great work promoting a healthy and fun lifestyle.

    Sending you greetings and kind regards from Canada,

    Scott

    Scott LeDrew wrote on April 28th, 2011
  14. 1 more herb: the HERB. Legalize weed. Can’t find any reason why it should be treated different from alcohol or tobacco. Personally, I prefer rosemary, but I don’t favor locking up someone who prefers the other herb.

    myagent2000 wrote on April 28th, 2011
  15. Marjoram is fantastic for any poached or baked white fish. Grouper, halibut, cod etc. I’m not sure of it’s nutritional components though!

    grokella wrote on April 28th, 2011
  16. Lemon Thyme on Mark’s BA Salad! Also, a couple of people pointed out: be sure you’re willing to be ruthless if you plant mint in your garden. I plant it in pots and keep it on the deck; if you plant directly into the garden, you either need to REALLY, REALLY like a LOT of mint, or be willing to dig the spreading mass.

    I use Rosemary twigs for shish kabobs skewers. YUM!

    Mary Anne wrote on April 28th, 2011
  17. Mmmm…lamb. We just did the whole Greek Easter thing, with a whole lamb cooking on a spit in my driveway with 25 adults crowding the spit, picking the meat off it while it was still turning. Neighbors now think we’re nuts, but it’s the best way to eat lamb/goat! I did not use thyme, though, and I’m pretty sure a lamb from some farm in western Massachusetts does not eat lots of it. I’ll have to try using it next time – sounds delish. I personally cannot live without oregano (I store dried oregano in my freezer) and loads of parsley…wonder if parsley is as healthy as the herbs mentioned here? I love to put whole basil (or parsley or mint) leaves in salad, too, just as you would use any other greens.

    Maryanne wrote on April 29th, 2011
  18. Marjoram is hands down my favorite herb, and very underutilized. Bit subtler (and BETTER) than Oregano.

    Andy wrote on April 29th, 2011
  19. A tough challenege to pick out 6 herbs but I think you made great choices here. I really enjoy fresh dill as it is very versatile and goes particularly well when whipping up a natural Greek yoghurt mix (try natural greek yoghurt, chopped cucumber, dash of extra virgin olive oil, black pepper and some fresh dill on top).

    Luke M-Davies wrote on April 30th, 2011
  20. TIP: It’s worth drying yourself even if you’re buying rather than growing herbs.

    Dry as whole leaves and DON’T crumble. Just store in a jar whole. When using, THEN you crumble. This retains much of the fresh flavor a long time – my dried herbs are barely distinguishable from fresh.

    jpatti wrote on May 2nd, 2011
  21. Herbs are wonderful things. I grew up learning about the amazing properties of basic herbs. Some of the things I’ve learned that are useful: Turmeric is very anti inflammatory, and fantastic for PMS and cramps, or just muscle cramps. Ginger is good for stomach problems, and has other amazing properties (You might look it up). Cinnamon lowers blood sugar, which might not be necessary for a primal blueprint diet, but it’s a bonus. Pepper lowers blood pressure and is blood thinning. Almost all edible flavoring herbs and spices have health benefits. My spice rack is huge and overflowing with just about every herb imaginable, well I’m missing a few, looks like I need to go to my local produce and herb shop.

    Wil wrote on May 10th, 2011
  22. holy basil is a different herb than culinary basil. both are incredibly beneficial though!

    amy wrote on May 15th, 2011
  23. You can find cherry juice benefits at allcherryjuicebenefits.com

    David wrote on December 5th, 2011
  24. My favorite herb is Lemon Balm(Mint Balm. Its one of the most easiest plant and herb I have ever grown! I love it! Plus it smalls really nice too. (the only bad thing about it probable though is that since its in the mint family, it grows like a weed!)

    Meghan wrote on December 13th, 2011
  25. When my ram gets bloat I make him a huge bowl of candy mint tea & sugar. He slurps it down to the last drop & fixes him right up!

    veronica wrote on March 25th, 2012
  26. please send me about more herbs and their use thanks .

    njugunapaul32@yahoo.com wrote on November 27th, 2012
  27. Great post! I bookmarked your site so I can have a look around when I have more time :)

    Jessica wrote on June 5th, 2013
  28. My nephew is two and he loves Basil. A lot. Especially raw. He will eat several leaves at a time. That’s OK, right?

    aria wrote on June 20th, 2013
  29. Hello

    Could you Please tell me what is considered effective dosage per day ?

    Rgd
    h

    h wrote on June 27th, 2013
  30. Interesting… Those 6 herbs are the only ones we are currently growing in our “Tower Garden”. I guess in certain cases common can be normal. Yeah!

    Rob wrote on December 4th, 2014

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