About herbs and spices and their importance in our diet; which is becoming more apparent as nutritional experts understand more about the complex chemical structure of herbs and possible health benefits.
It’s estimated that there are at least 250,000 higher plant species on the planet, of which twenty to 30,000 are considered edible. Yet humans subsist, for the most part, on only about a dozen or so of those plants species. They are, of course, the staple foods that we see in our grocery markets everyday such as potatoes, rice, cassava, beans and wheat. Of the twenty thousand or so edible plants, several thousand are generally categorized as edible herbs and or spices. Indeed, with staple foods being our most important source of nutrition, it is sometimes easy to overlook herbs, yet they play a crucial role in our diets.
In the past herbs were widely valued primarily for their medicinal benefits, although with advances in modern medicine they are longer used to treat ailments. Nowadays herbs and herbal supplements are taken for general good health and healing. In recent years researchers have begun to better understand the complex chemistry of herbs, the nutritional value of herbs and spices, and the role of antioxidants and other valuable compounds in them. Although we do consume herbs in smaller amounts, so they are considered by many experts to be less nutritionally important than other plant foods.
Most notably herbs and spices add color and flavor to food and colorful foods look more appetizing. For example, the yellow of saffron or the vibrant yellow of turmeric in curries and rice dishes; the subtle red of annatto, added to cheese and butter, which would otherwise look an unappealing pale beige color, are a testament to the fact. The colors of herbs and spices are caused by flavonoids, or color pigments, in plants such as anthocyanins, which are found in red-purple colored herbs and spices; as in the red of chili peppers; carotenoids such as crocin give saffron, turmeric and annatto yellow color. Flavonoids have numerous health benefits as anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, anti-tumor and antioxidants.
Aside from esthetics and taste, adding herbs and spices often increases the vitamin and mineral content of our foods and adds complex natural compounds which are thought beneficial to our health, although much research still needs to be done.
- The volatile oils found in herbs have a bitter taste but serve a purpose as they prepare the digestive system by stimulating the liver and gallbladder. This helps improve digestion and the elimination of toxins. For this reason, and not just to please our taste buds, certain herbs and spices are pared with fatty foods; such as mint with lamb, caraway seeds with pork or beef, and fennel with oily fish; such as salmon or mackerel.
- Organic Acids in herbs, such as citric acid, also produce a bitter taste but have antiseptic effects on the digestive system.
- Similar to flavonoids are coumarins, which have anticoagulant and antibacterial properties; found in sweet clover. However, like many constituents of herbs, coumarins are toxic if consumed in large amounts.
- Regarded by many as the most important chemical compounds in plants are alkaloids. Alkaloids in plants are numerous and vary in type and structure, although generally speaking they affect the central nervous system either beneficially ( beta-carboline alkaloids may help treat Alzheimer’s) or negatively if consumed in excess. Alkaloids in plants have a bitter taste.
- Saponins are sweet flavored compounds which foam like soap when added to water and act like detergent in plants. Saponins are types of glycosides which have numerous health benefits such as lowering LDL, or bad cholesterol, supporting the immune system and lowing our risk of cancer. Saponin rich herbs include common soapwort and sarsaparilla.
- Tannins are what causes the astringent or dry mouth sensation after we eat plant derived foods. Herbs that are rich in tannins, such as pot marigold, are known for their antiseptic properties and also to detoxify the gastrointestinal tract.
- Terpenoids are extremely complex compounds, often found as components of volatile oils or saponins. They have a bitter taste and provide the aromatic scent of herbs, most notably eucalyptus, cinnamon and cloves; also daisy or sunflower family.In the plant world terpenoids are natures immune system, protecting plants from their environments. Researchers have discovered that many plant terpenoids have anti-inflammatory effects and may suppress the growth of human cancer cells. Other compounds in herbs that work in concert with the aforementioned compounds are resins, quinones, glycosides, and mucilages.
Substitute Salt for Herbs: Adding spices to our foods as a substitute for salt is a good idea and highly recommended by the American Heart Association. The recipe for their salt substitute is equal parts of each of the following; garlic powder, black pepper, onion powder, parsley, sage, savory, mace, marjoram, thyme. Also a half part cayenne pepper. Coincidentally, there is mounting research data to suggest that cayenne pepper lowers LDL or bad cholesterol, helps circulation, blood pressure, and even inhibits the growth of cancer cells. All these health benefits and a lot more, too long to list, are thought due to a highly nutritious compound found in chili peppers known as capsicum.
Spices originate from tropical regions of the world and are beneficial to eat in hot climates as they cause perspiration and raise metabolic rate, thereby cooling the body and assisting in detoxification. Interestingly, chili peppers were not found outside of the Americas before 1492, when a fellow named Columbus brought them back to Spain.
Aside from herbs and spices there is another herb category known as “potherbs“. Potherbs refers to leafy herbs used in salads such as arugula, dandelion, nasturtium, angelica, watercress (high in iron), sorrel, cardoon and chicory.
Image credit; Nigel Freeman, published with creative commons licence.