Boost flavour and health with herbs

Nothing turns a bland dish into a culinary delight like the right blend of herbs and spices. But did you know that many herbs and spices also pack a powerful, health-promoting punch? Sure, your grandmother may have given you peppermint tea for an upset tummy, but new research shows our favourite flavour-enhancers may fight major health threats like cancer and heart disease as well. Pump up flavour and health benefits with garden-variety herbs and spices such as:


Health perks:
May lower blood sugar and harmful LDL and total cholesterols. Has anti-inflammatory effects - which may reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer and other chronic conditions - as well as antimicrobial properties, which may kill bacteria that can make you sick.

Add it to: Oatmeal or oatmeal cookies; homemade apple sauce or apple cider; rice or couscous dishes; cooked squash or squash soup; bread pudding, pumpkin pie, fruit breads or muffins (like pear or pumpkin muffins). In addition, "cinnamon enhances the sweetness in foods, so it can help you cut back on sugar", says Dr Wahida Karmally, director of nutrition at the Irving Institute for Clinical and Translational Research at Columbia University, in New York.


Health perks:
Strong antioxidant properties and anti-inflammatory effects, both of which protect against a host of health woes, including cancer and heart disease. May offer some additional protection against cancer by interrupting “the various pathways that are involved in tumor growth", notes Dr Winston Craig, a professor of nutrition at Andrews University, in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Add it to: Roasted meats (such as beef, lamb or pork) or chicken; pasta or risotto dishes; mashed or roasted potatoes; stuffing, frittatas or steamed green beans. You can also use fresh rosemary to make a rosemary-infused oil (with safflower or olive oil) for cooking.


Health perks:
Offers anti-inflammatory effects. Inhibits the growth of cancerous cells. "Helps with brain function and can help delay the [cognitive] aging process," adds Craig. May aid in inhibiting blood clots, preventing DNA damage and improving DNA repair.

Add it to: Rice or couscous dishes; curries or curried chicken salad; squash or lentil soups; fish and seafood dishes; and stews (especially those with lamb or chicken). As an added visual treat, turmeric will turn these foods a rich, golden colour.


Health perks:
Eases nausea, including morning sickness and motion sickness. May help prevent blood clots from forming. Added bonus: It can help prevent flatulence - if you cook it with beans, for instance, Karmally suggests.

Add it to: Stir-fries, soups, broiled fish, baked chicken or Asian-inspired pasta dishes; cooked vegetables (such as carrots, sweet potatoes or butternut or acorn squash); cookies, fruit breads, muffins and cakes.


Health perks:
Aids digestion. May reduce your risk or improve control of diabetes by helping to lower blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity. Full of health-promoting antioxidants. Possible antimicrobial and antifungal effects that can kill germs that could make you sick. 

Add it to: Pizza, pastas, roasted potatoes, meat dishes (such as meatloaf, lamb burgers, beef stew or lamb shanks) and roasted chicken; clam or shrimp sauce for pasta; scrambled eggs or omelets. 

Preserving the potency of herbs and spices

For maximum flavour and health-promoting perks, buy fresh herbs (like rosemary) or spices (like ginger or cinnamon) whenever possible. Fresh, leafy herbs (like rosemary or oregano) may keep their potency longer if you store them in sealed bags in the freezer.

Dried herbs and spices will also offer flavour and health benefits - just keep in mind that they “lose their potency within a year or two, so make sure you have something fresh, that hasn’t been sitting in your cabinet for years and years", advises Dr Mary Ellen Camire, a professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine.

Dried herbs and spices should also be stored in tightly sealed containers away from heat and humidity - not above or next to the stove. And if they’re in glass jars, keep them in a dark cabinet or pantry - not on the counter, even though they look pretty there - because light will cause many of them to lose their potency, adds Camire.

- (Stacey Colino, LIve Right Live Well/Health24, January 2011)

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