6 Fresh Herbs for Better Health
Certain herbs can relax blood vessels, fight bacteria and even protect against cancer
The herbs that are in full bloom this time of year have more to offer than a pretty pop of green on a plate. They can add enough flavor to make up for much of the fat, salt and calories you cut back on in the name of nutrition or weight loss, says Leslie Beck, RD, a Toronto-based nutritionist and author of "The Plant-Based Power Diet."
What’s more, some herbs have nutritional benefits that rival those in other produce.
“Many contain potent antioxidants called polyphenols which research suggests may protect against cancer, diabetes, heart disease, even cognitive impairment,” adds Beck. “Certain ones been shown to curb inflammation, lower blood glucose and improve memory. Fresh herbs even contribute some vitamins and minerals.”
Here are six that are especially rich in health benefits.
Health benefits: Basil is a rich source of vitamin A and also magnesium, which helps buoy heart health by prompting blood vessels to relax so that blood can flow freely. The flavonoids in basil have potent anti-bacterial properties. Some research has found that basil essential oil added to water used to wash fresh produce reduced the amount of Shigella, a diarrhea-triggering bacteria, to undetectable levels. So adding basil to uncooked foods like salad may make them safer to eat.
How to enjoy it: Pesto, Italian sauces and caprese salad — thick slices of fresh tomato, fresh mozzarella and basil drizzled with olive oil — are the most familiar ways to use fresh basil. Muddle it to add to lemonade or other citrus-based beverages, or toss a chiffonade of basil with strawberries and a splash of balsamic vinegar.
Health benefits: Studies have found that cilantro, the leafy part of the coriander plant, has anti-bacterial properties (particularly against salmonella), as well as antioxidant properties. It’s even been found to slow the build-up of lead in rats, which may make it useful for treating lead poisoning.
How to enjoy it: Some people actually can’t enjoy cilantro: They’re genetically programmed to hate how it tastes, research has found. But if you like it, you already know that this near-twin of parsley pops up in ethnic dishes as diverse as Mexican salsas and Thai green curry paste. Try tossing it in with scrambled eggs
Health benefits: It’s technically not an herb — it’s an allium — but fresh garlic is such a flavor-packed plant it’s worth including. Thousands of studies have suggested that the bulb known as the “stinking rose” contains substances that act as antioxidants and anti-bacterials, may help prevent cancer and diabetes, lower blood pressure and cholesterol and boost the immune system.
How to enjoy it: Of course you can add garlic to just about any savory dish, from sautéed green beans to chicken. Roasted until creamy and sweet, garlic makes a delicious spread for bread. Slice off the top of a whole head of garlic, place in a pan, drizzle with olive oil and cover with aluminum foil. Roast at 375 degrees F for 40 minutes or until browned and soft. You can squeeze the softened garlic cloves directly out of their papery skins.
Health benefits: One study found a chemical constituent of this pizza herb is an effective treatment against drug-resistant bacteria. It may curb inflammation, protect against Alzheimer’s and kill cancer cells, including breast cancer cells.
How to enjoy it: Used widely in Italian, Greek and Mexican cooking, chopped fresh oregano sparks up salads, salad dressings, sauces, poultry and seafood.
Health benefits: A potent antioxidant, this evergreen herb may help prevent cancer and ease indigestion.
How to enjoy it: “The antioxidants in rosemary block the formation of cancer-causing chemicals in grilled food, so add some chopped fresh rosemary to your homemade burgers,” suggests Beck. Rosemary mixes well with other fresh herbs such as garlic, oregano and even cinnamon for marinades, salad dressings and Italian tomato sauces.
Health benefits: Thymol, a chemical found in thyme, curbs inflammation and acts as an antibiotic against common and dangerous bacteria,including those that cause food poisoning.
How to enjoy it: It’s the often unidentified flavor in Italian sauces, soups, and stews. Sprinkle the whole leaves (they’re tiny) on vegetables and grilled meats and fish. Top halved Roma tomatoes with sprigs of time and roast in the oven at 200 degrees F for eight hours for rich, roasted tomato taste to add to spaghetti sauce.
Health benefits: Parsley is one of the richest sources of a flavonol called myricetin that has been found to protect against skin cancer. It’s also rich in apigenin. Researchers at University of Missouri found that this chemical decreased the size of tumors in an aggressive form of breast cancer. And like rosemary, parsley can help to block the potentially cancer-causing effects of heterocyclic amines created when grilling foods at high temperatures. And five sprigs of parsley contains 100 percent of the daily recommended amount of vitamin K. Parsley also helps to flush excess fluids from the body, which is good for kidney health.
How to enjoy it: Skip those lonely-looking sprigs of curly parsley often used as a garnish and treat the flat-leafed variety as a full-on vegetable. Toss it by the handfuls with grilled or roasted vegetables, or make a pesto by subbing parsley for basil and almonds or walnuts for pine nuts. Parsley is also a tasty addition to veggie-based smoothies.