The 27 Healthiest Herbs and Spices to Add to Your Food Today
In addition to boosting the flavor of your meals, herbs and spice ‘upgrade’ your food by further increasing its antioxidants, minerals and vitamins content. Their nutrient dense nature makes them thermogenic, increasing your metabolism rate naturally. Moreover, a study by Maanstricht University in the Netherlands revealed that spices such as red pepper flakes can reduce your calorie intake by 10-16% as they increase your overall feeling of satiety. i
Weight loss aside, herbs and spices have many medicinal properties. Researchers from three universities proved the benefits of herbs and spices by feeding subjects the same quantities used in spicing meals. ii According to the study’s results, subjects’ blood showed resistance to DNA strand breaks, cell death, and oxidized cells. Therefore, herbs and spices can effectively protect against oxidative and inflammation measures.
With so much to gain from consuming herbs and spices, it’s about time that you include at least some of the following in the meals you cook.
Ashwagandha, or Indian Ginseng, is a well-known Indian Ayurvedic herb that has been used for thousands of years to reduce stress and improve energy and vitality. Now, studies revealed that the herb has the power to fight off the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. The National Brain Research Centre in India conducted studies on mice with Alzheimer’s and concluded that doses of ashwagandha extract have the power to reverse memory loss and improve cognitive abilities. Mice with Alzheimer’s were able to learn and retain what they learned by 20 days and their behavior returned to normal after 30 days.
Also known as Saint Joseph’s Wort, Basil is another traditional Tamil and Ayurvedic medicine that contains a wide range of essential oils and natural products such as polyphenols. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology discovered that it contains (E)-beta-caryophyllene (BCP), which is useful for treating arthritis as well as inflammatory bowel diseases. iii Due to its high antioxidant activity, basil can also prevent the harmful effects of aging by killing harmful molecules as well as free radicals in the liver, brain and heart.
Basil leaves can be eaten raw in salads and a variety of pasta dishes and also in powder form.
3. Black Pepper
Black pepper is a hot, pungent spice that contains iron, potassium, calcium, magnesium, zinc, vitamins A and C, and many more nutrients. Well used in many Ayurvedic remedies, it improves digestion, stimulates appetite, and prevents the formation of intestinal gas. Moreover, studies show that black pepper may contain immune system-enhancing properties. The spice can reportedly boost the number and efficiency of white cells, assisting the body against invading microbes.
A common spice in Indian cooking, cardamom is a medicinal spice that has been used for curing sore throats, teeth and gum infections, and stomach problems for centuries. Currently, studies are underway to prove cardamom’s ability to prevent cancer. A study by the Department of Biotechnology, PES Institute of Technology in Bangalore, India uncovered that the spice’s IC3 (indole-3-carbinol) and DIM(diindolylmethane) can fight hormone-responding cancers such as breast cancer and prostate cancer. iV
5. Cayenne Pepper
Used heavily by American and Chinese healers, cayenne pepper is an anti-irritant that can ease an upset stomach, sore throats and ulcers. It also flaunts anti-fungal and anti-allergen properties, providing relief from fungal pathogens and allergies respectively. Like many spices on this list, cayenne pepper may act as an anti-cancer agent. A study revealed that capsaicin, the main component of cayenne pepper, may slow the formation of tobacco-induced lung tumors.
Popular in tea form, chamomile has been known to calm an upset stomach and allow restful sleep. However, not many are aware that the herb flaunts powerful anti-bacterial, anti-allergic and anti-spasmodic properties. Due to these, chamomile may be used to treat slow-healing wounds, gum inflammation, diaper rash and abscesses among other conditions. A 2011 study funded by the United States Public Health Service Grants further unveiled the herb’s effectiveness against the common cold, cardiovascular conditions, eczema, diarrhea, hemorrhoids, oral ulcers, osteoporosis, and vaginitis.
Cinnamon is one of the few spices with high amounts of manganese, a trace mineral that helps the body form stronger bones, connective tissues and sex hormones. Manganese also metabolizes fat and carbs and regulates blood sugar, significantly reducing the risk of diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Aside from the benefits of its manganese content, cinnamon may boost brain activity. Dr. P. Zolad of Wheeling Jesuit University revealed that the spice can boost the brain as a flavor or fragrance. According to the report presented during the annual meeting of the Association for Chemoreception Sciences, “Cinnamon, administered retronasally or orthonasally, improved participants’ scores on tasks related to attentional processes, virtual recognition memory, working memory, and visual-motor response speed.” Cinnamon is usually found in power form in your local grocery store. It is often added to cereals as well.
A 2008 study published in the Journal of Medicinal Foods proved that cloves are the most potent among 24 common herbs and spices found on spice racks. vi They are a potent anti-inflammatory spice that also boasts anti-bacterial and antioxidant properties. Moreover, the spice’s eugenol content allows it to serve as a mild anesthetic that benefits toothaches, gum pain and sore throats.
Another Indian spice that’s also consumed in Asian, African and Latin American countries, cumin is a traditional remedy for dyspepsia and diarrhea. It stimulates the liver to secrete more bile, which, in turn, breaks down fats and speeds up nutrient absorption. As a result, it promotes healthier digestion. A 2011 animal study also uncovered that cumin has anti-stress properties. vii Researchers daily administered doses of 100, 200 and 300 mg per kg body weight one hour before inducting stress. In addition to curbing their stress levels, cumin produced lipid peroxidation inhibition in both rats’ livers and brains. Different variants of this spice offer their own benefits. For instance, black cumin seeds were found to have an anti-diabetic effect in type II diabetics.
Dandelions are one of the important herbs, ranking in the top four green vegetables in the USDA Bulletin #8 Composition of Foods. They are rich in beta-carotene, from which vitamin A is produced, making them the third richest source of this vitamin after cod liver oil and beef liver. Dandelions are also rich in fiber, potassium, iron, calcium, B vitamins and riboflavin. While there has been limited human research on this herb, the latest studies are focusing on the cancer-fighting characteristics of this herb. Dr. Siyaram Pandey from University of Windsor uncovered that dandelion root extract forced the aggressive cancer cell monocytic myeloid leukemia to commit suicide. viii Pandey has been receiving grants since then to continue his cancer research.
Fenugreek seeds are rich in minerals and vitamins, including iron, potassium, copper, zinc, and vitamins A, C, and B6. Because 100 grams contain 323 calories, they were used to gain weight in the Middle East. Their high fiber content further makes them effective against constipation, especially as they add to digestive bulk. Moreover, their amino acid 4-hydroxy isoleucine content lowers the rate of glucose absorption, allowing diabetics to enjoy lower blood sugar levels. The biggest benefit of fenugreek, though, is improving cardiovascular health by lowering cholesterol. ix The seeds contain polysaccharides, which prevent bile salts from being absorbed into the colon and bind to toxins so that they can be expelled from the body. This results in lower LDL (bad cholesterol) levels and better health.
12. Flat Leaf Parsley
Flat leaf parsley is more than just garnish that flavor to your food. In addition to being rich in vital vitamins such as vitamins C and K, which in turn strengthen your immune system, improve bone health, heal your nervous system, support kidney function, control blood pressure, reduce hair loss, and encourage digestion. A compound in parsley, apigenin, has been found to inhibit the long life of many cancer cells, including breast cancer, cervical cancer, lung cancer, and prostate cancer.
Valued by Middle Eastern and East Asian cultures for its therapeutic properties, garlic has amazing health potential in all parts of the body. It has been acknowledged by the National Institutes of Health for its heart benefits. A study showed that it can slow down atherosclerotic disease, i.e. hardening of arteries. Another unique benefit is protecting the liver against the long-term effects of alcohol consumption. xi A garlic derived compound known as diallyl disulfide (DADS) protects against ethanol-induced oxidative stress, preventing liver injury. Garlic can be eaten fresh (although it is a bit potent), added to cooked foods and also consumed in a high quality garlic supplement.
Regardless of the form of ginger you use, this common ingredient in Asian cuisine is an effective intestinal spasmolytic, i.e. it can relieve and soothe the intestinal tract. This is why consuming ginger can relieve an upset stomach and nausea while easing the discomfort of gas and diarrhea. For active individuals, adding ginger to food is very beneficial. In addition to reducing inflammation, the root has been known to reduce exercise-induced muscle pain by up to 25%. xi Research shows that consuming raw or heat-treated ginger reduces pain within 24 hours of eccentric exercise, making it a vital component in muscular pain relief products. Ginger can be eaten fresh, added to tea or herbal drinks, cooked foods and also consumed in a high quality supplement.
American ginseng and Asian ginseng are known for lowering glucose levels and cholesterol levels, reducing stress, and treating diabetes. A well-known energy booster, it stimulates the mental and physical activity of tired individuals. A trial led by the Mayo Clinic uncovered that ginseng can help cancer patients with fatigue. Researcher Debra Barton, Ph.D., of the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center, said “After eight weeks, we saw a 20-point improvement in fatigue in cancer patients, measured on a 100-point, standardized fatigue scale.” Ginseng is often found in a paste, extract or powder form.
Lavender may be part of your potpourri mixture or a component in one of your oils, but you can add 3-4 of these small flowers to enjoy a range of benefits including increased sleep regularity, fewer headaches and migraines, and pain relief. Due to its relaxing effects, many studies are underway to confirm its ability to improve blood circulation, lower blood pressure, boost brain activity, and promote muscle strength and health. xiii
Previously used for creating love potions for centuries, this popular kitchen spice is packed with vitamins, minerals and a range of chemicals such as volatile oil, flavonoids, and oleanolic acid. Together, these components give this herb its antimicrobial, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and sedative properties. As a result, marjoram improves the appetite by increasing the efficiency of digestive enzymes, treats persistent symptoms of cold and flu, lowers blood pressure, and provides pain relief. Moreover, a study recently discovered that women suffering from polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) can lower their adrenal androgens levels and improve insulin sensitivity by drinking marjoram tea. This, in turn, restores their bodies’ hormonal balance and regulates their menstrual cycle.
Whether you intend to use it in the form of seeds or oil, having mustard will improve digestion due to its high dietary fiber content, which is readily soluble in nature. Mustard is also known for fighting skin infections thanks to its anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties. Furthermore, its rich curcumin content makes it perfect for relieving pain, especially when associated with inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and irritable bowel syndrome.
Probably the most popular spice during the holidays, nutmeg is a valuable addition to your dishes as it has proven to be useful for anxiety, controlling muscle spasms, diarehea, indigestion, nausea and vomiting, and toothaches. By increasing circulation, it promotes cell growth and organ function. Moreover, for those diagnosed with male sexual disorders, nutmeg can help without the adverse effects and toxicity of most medicines. A study showed that administering this spice to rats can increase their sexual activity significantly by targeting both libido and potency.
Literally translated as ‘mountain joy’, oregano has been a symbol of happiness in the ancient Greek and Roman cultures. It’s also a medicinal herb that contains vitamins A, C and K as well as fiber, vitamin B6, calcium and iron. The American Society for Nutritional Sciences recommends oregano highly as it’s rich in antioxidants and, therefore, essential for immune system support and inhibiting inflammation. As one of the healthiest herbs around, its antifungal and antibacterial properties are reportedly strong enough to kill the superbug MRSA. A team of researchers led by Professor Vyv Salisbury reported, “We have done a few preliminary tests and have found that the essential oil from the oregano kills MRSA at a dilution 1 to 1,000. The tests show that the oil kills MRSA both as a liquid and as a vapor and its antimicrobial activity is not diminished by heating in boiling water.”
Termed an aggressive spice that offers food a sweet yet spicy kick, paprika delivers the full power of ground capsicum peppers. It’s extremely rich in vitamin C as well as carotenoids, capable of regulating blood pressure by improving blood circulation, and effective in normalizing stomach acids to assist in digestion. A recent study published in the Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics uncovered another benefit of paprika: speeding up visual processing speed by 20%. Dr. Billy Hammond, lead researcher at the University of Georgia’s Visual Sciences Laboratory, believes that bright colored fruits and vegetables can improve youths’ reaction time. “Processing speed is central to many aspects of life – from reading, to reaction time when driving to successful sports performance. The ability to actually change brain function in relatively young, healthy adults based on nutritional intake has wide implications for our ability to optimize human performance,” he said.
A favorite winter treat, peppermint offers therapeutic effects that complement its flavoring benefits. It is great for digestive issues, which is why it may be used to relive the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, colonic spasm and gas, gastric emptying disorders, and indigestion. For parents, it can prevent nipple cracks and pain in breastfeeding mothers as well as treat colic in infants. Peppermint has also proven to be effective in treating enveloped viruses such as herpes simplex virus type 1 and type 2. xvi The herb’s compounds inhibit drug-resistant herpes, reducing plaque formation by 82% and 92% for HSV-1 and HSV-2 respectively.
Related to oregano, thyme, basil and lavender, rosemary tastes great in dishes like rosemary lamb and offers many health benefits due to its richness in iron, calcium and vitamin B6. The spice is an excellent source of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, allowing it to boost your immune system and improve circulation. Rosemary is also recommended to improve digestion, enhance cognitive performance, and fight off free radical damage in the brain to prevent brain aging. Currently, scientists are researching its anti-cancerous properties. A study by the Institute of Food Technologists further revealed that rosemary extracts added to ground beef patties decreased heterocyclic amines, compounds that may be responsible for certain cancers.
Part of most Mediterranean dishes, sage flaunts a high antioxidant capacity that helps in fighting the damage caused by free radicals, which can often result in cell death and chronic disease. These are some of the benefits that drive scientists to test whether or not it can help patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. Sage can further improve the memory capacity of healthy young individuals and lower both blood glucose and cholesterol levels.
Tea is the second most consumed beverage after water worldwide. In the U.S., the Tea Association of the U.S. reports that 158 million people drink this beverage. When consumed reasonably, tea can increase your energy expenditure and fat oxidation, thus promoting weight loss and helping you maintain a healthy body. To stop the progression of certain types of cancers, your diet should include green tea. As for black tea, studies show that it may benefit hypertensive patients. Dr. Claudio Ferri from Italy published his findings, writing, “Our studies build on previous work to clearly show that drinking as little as one cup of tea per day supports healthy arterial function and blood pressure. These results suggest that on a population scale, drinking tea could help reduce significantly the incidence of stroke, heart attack and other cardiovascular diseases.”
One of the easiest herbs to grow in your backyard, thyme flaunts culinary, medicinal and ornamental uses. Its flowers, leaves and extracts have been used for embalming in Ancient Egypt and as incense in Ancient Greek temples. Now, it’s used in potpourri and mood-enhancing aromatherapy, ointments for scrapes and cuts, cough elixirs, and mouth washes for oral and throat infections. Maud Grieve’s 1931 “A Modern Herbal” further recommends it for upper respiratory tract problems such as bronchitis. Moreover, studies are underway to test the effect of thyme on acne bacterium. In one study, thyme successfully killed the bacterium in five minutes without causing skin irritation.
Part of many folklore medicines, turmeric’s health benefits include an improved ability to digest fats, reduce gas, decrease congestion, and improve skin conditions such as eczema. The spice has been used as an anti-inflammatory agent due to its curcumin content. It can also relieve joint pain caused by conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis without producing the toxic effects of some synthetic drugs. Other possible benefits include treating inflammatory bowel diseases, lowering cholesterol levels, protecting the heart, improving liver function, and relieving indigestion. Research has also revealed the spice’s ability to prevent diabetes even in individuals at high risk. Study leader Somlak Chuengsamarn of Srinakharinwirot University in Nakomnayok, Thailand wrote, “Because of its benefits and safety, we propose that curcumin extract may be used for an intervention therapy for the prediabetes population.” These are just some of the best herbs and spices you should include in your food. However, they’re a good start towards becoming healthier and enjoying life to the fullest.