Although the importance of culinary herbs and spices as health remedies has been known and appraised for centuries, it is only in the last decade that dedicated time and resources to analyze folk medicine’s superheroes was invested to try to determine their exact bioactive properties. While nobody is denying that herbs and spices do provide certain amounts of vitamins, minerals and polyphenols, recent scientific approaches focus on the real impact of cooking with these herbs and spices upon our health as they become a part of our diets.
The issue is that we consume plenty of such plants when we cook with herbs and spices in very small amounts and we usually mix them with other foods to enhance flavor and taste. Are these small amounts enough to actually have a positive influence upon our health? How do food mixes influence our health from this point of view? Can a sprinkle of thyme on a steak be considered enough to support thyme as herbal remedy? Such questions have led to a number of studies paying more attention to the habitual intake levels of culinary herbs and spices, their properties when cooked and the bioactive properties of combined spices and herbs in foods. Today we will take a look at the data available and try to better understand the role of culinary herbs and spices in our daily lives.
The Miracle behind Culinary Herbs and Spices
The bioactive properties of common culinary herbs and spices are usually described as antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, neuro-protective, anti-microbial, anti-diabetic (Type II), and anti-asthma, among others. Full of vitamins and other compounds, herbs and spices are usually consumed together with other types of food, in teas and homemade remedies. But the miraculous properties are backed up by polyphenols – phytochemical constituents which predominate in these spices and herbs. Polyphenols are the main components that give herbs and spice their bioactive properties.
What are Polyphenols? How Do They Impact Our Health when Habitually Consumed?
The predominant group of polyphenols in herbs and spices are the phenolic acids and the flavonoids. Polyphenols are classified according to the number of phenol rings and the groups that bind these rings. Besides the two main groups found in herbs and spices, polyphenols also include the stilbenes and the lignans groups and the coumarins and the tannins polyphenolic dietary classes.
Polyphenols can be found in many foods (dark chocolate, broccoli, blueberries, onions, grapes and purple berries), but the dry form of herbs and spices contain even more polyphenols than the above-mentioned products. Since the polyphenols are the ones conferring herbs and spices their bioactive healthy properties, the next issue to be discussed is the habitual intake of these herbs and spices so they become relevant in protecting and boosting our health. In other words, how much parsley should you eat a day to benefit from its antioxidant properties, high beta-carotene content and abundance of minerals in the treatment of kidney stones for instance.
A handful of habitual intake studies shed some light on the median quantities of certain herbs and spices one should consume daily so the polyphenols contained by them become relevant as health remedies:
- Basil (dried and fresh), oregano (dried), cinnamon, pepper, and spice blends: 2.7 g/person/day
- Ginger and parsley: 0.4 mg/person/day
According to these studies, some herbs and spices are richer in polyphenols than others in their dried form as we usually find them in stores and use them to spice up our foods. Some of the most important sources of polyphenols (total phenolic content in mg/100 g of fresh weight) are:
- Cloves: anti-inflammatory properties, expectorant, metabolism booster.
- Cinnamon: anti-inflammatory properties, antioxidant properties, anti-cardiovascular disease protector, anti-diabetic, neuro-protective properties, anti-cancer, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal infections protector, anti HIV.
- Oregano: Anti-fungal and anti-biotic, used to alleviate menstrual cramps
- Sage: anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, cleansing and diuretic properties, anti-oxidant, neuro-protector.
- Rosemary: anti-septic, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal, nerve and circulation stimulant, powerful antioxidant, astringent.
- Coriander: warming carminative, detoxification properties, good remedy for urinary tract infections.
- Turmeric: anti-inflammatory properties, anti-cancer
- Thyme: strong antiseptic, expectorant, anti-spasmodic, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-biotic, anti-degenerative diseases.
- Parsley: rich vitamin C source, digestive system protector and enhancer, diuretic, liver and kidney cleanser
- Dill: sleep enhancer, anti-spasmodic, carminative, expectorant, neuro-protective.
- Ginger: improves circulation, anti-inflammatory, effective in motion sickness, muscle relaxant.
Should We Cook Herbs and Spices or Try Consume Them Fresh?
This is a question that needs to be tackled as when it comes to herbs and spices, the usual reaction is to automatically consider fresh products to be healthier than cooked ones. However, just as we discussed before, the dry version of many culinary herbs and spices have more bioactive properties than their raw versions. So let’s see how we can make peace between daily cooking and the herbs and spices we have in our kitchens.
The impact of cooking with a number of common culinary herbs and spices has been thoroughly studied and the results are surprising to say the least. Despite common beliefs that something fresh is healthier than something cooked, the data begs to differ:
- Cinnamon, cloves, fennel, ginger, parsley, rosemary, sage and thyme enhance their healing properties when simmered, stewed or microwaved – heat helps the herbs and spices release their antioxidants better.
- Dry heating, grilling and frying of herbs and spices considerably influences the amounts of polyphenols released in the processed food.
- Cooked and digested rosemary, sage and thyme show increased levels of polyphenols than the uncooked versions.
As an important note to be made, the type of cooking, the time of cooking and the individual digestive processes influence the release of the herbs’ and spices’ healing effects. However, as a conclusion, such herbs and spices should become a regular part of our daily diets as protectors and health boosters. As remedies, in teas, mixes and concoctions, such herbs, together with many others, make important adjuvant in the healing process of many illnesses. However, you should always consult with your doctor before consuming them on a regular basis.
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- Culinary Herbs and Spices and Their Bioactive Properties - September 23, 2016