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Herbs and Spices: The key to maintaining a healthy life?

What’s sitting in your cupboard?

Some of the most powerful antioxidants on earth could be sitting idly by in your kitchen cupboard. What are these oft overlooked ingredients?  As researchers continue to uncover the benefits of eating a diet rich in ‘superfoods,’ a diverse cast of nutrient-dense foods, herbs and spices are increasingly being identified as helpful additives that have health and medicinal benefits.  One set of researchers analyzed over 3100 foods, beverages, herbs and spices and compiled a list of the resulting antioxidant levels.  Several herbs and spices ranked extremely high including clove, which had the highest mean antioxidant value, followed by peppermint, allspice, cinnamon, oregano, thyme, sage, rosemary, saffron and estragon, all dried and ground [1].

Research also strongly suggests that long term consumption of herbs and spices, as well as other foods rich in antioxidants, may provide a defense against the development of cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis and neurodegenerative diseases [2]. It is key to note that long term, habitual use of different herbs and spices is quantifiably necessary to see the potential health benefits. In fact, eating habits across the globe are predicators of mortality and disease. Two examples are enumerated in an article describing the role of herbs and spices in cancer prevention:

“..individuals who consumed more meats, salted fish, cold cuts and seasoned cheeses had the highest risk for gastric cancer, while those consuming more fresh fruit, raw vegetables, onion, garlic, and spices were associated with lower risk. In Asian countries, the consumption of curcumin, a component of curry powders, turmeric and mustard, along with low meat intake, have been reported to be factors linked to a lower incidence of colon cancer [3].”

So, essentially, eating fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices along with lower intake of meats will contribute to a lower incidence in certain types of cancers.



How to herbs and spices benefit health?

It is easy to say ‘such and such’ is high in antioxidants or ‘such and such’ may have cancer fighting benefits, but how do herbs and spices benefit health? Specifically, herbs and spices contain a sub-type of antioxidants called polyphenols. Polyphenols are micronutrients that have been shown to target free radicals and to resist aggression by pathogens. High consumption of foods rich in polyphenols seems to be linked to lowering non-communicable diseases like cancer, diabetes, and Parkinson’s [5].  Before we get ahead of ourselves here, there are over 8000 different polyphenols and it is hard to pinpoint the effectiveness of polyphenols after they are digested. This is the concept of bioavailability.

For instance, herbs and spices are often used in small amounts and vary in age so once they are cooked and consumed researchers have yet to firmly establish their effectiveness. Nevertheless, it is known that there is a synergistic relationship between eating a balance of different types of foods. What does this mean? It means that it wouldn’t be healthy to consume large amounts of herbs and spices just to try to receive major health benefits. Instead, herbs and spices should be consumed alongside other types of food. In addition, it is important to use fresh, high quality ingredients. It may be time to clean out the cupboards and replace dried herbs and spices that have been sitting for years. As a rule of thumb, high-quality dried herbs are just as good or better than fresh herbs in terms of antioxidant content, whereas fruits and vegetables lose antioxidants when they are cooked.


How to incorporate herbs and spices into your diet

As stated above, clove, peppermint, allspice, cinnamon, oregano, thyme, sage, rosemary, saffron and estragon had very high levels of antioxidants. Additionally, the health benefits of turmeric and ginger have been studied extensively. The key is to find ways to incorporate different herbs and spices into your everyday routine.

Allspice, clove, or cinnamon can be added to tea or coffee, oatmeal, baked goods, and smoothies

Tumeric can be added to season eggs as well as in a stew or curry

Oregano, thyme, sage, rosemary can be used in marinades and dressings for meat, poultry fish, and salads. Also, these herbs go well in Italian dishes.

Ginger can be added to tea, baked goods, and is a base ingredient in Asian dishes. It goes well in stir-fries and soups

Saffron and estragon are hard to incorporate into a regular diet as they are more expensive, but it can be added to soups, stews, and seafood dishes

For more ways to incorporate herbs and spices into your diet check out these popular articles:













  1. Carlsen MH, Halvorsen BL, Holte K, et al. The total antioxidant content of more than 3100 foods, beverages, spices, herbs and supplements used worldwide. Nutrition Journal. 2010;9:3. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-9-3.
  2. Pandey KB, Rizvi SI. Plant polyphenols as dietary antioxidants in human health and disease. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. 2009;2(5):270-278.
  3. Kaefer CM, Milner JA. The Role of Herbs and Spices in Cancer Prevention. The Journal of nutritional biochemistry. 2008;19(6):347-361. doi:10.1016/j.jnutbio.2007.11.003.
  4. Buiatti E, Palli D, Decarli A, Amadori D, Avellini C, Bianchi S, Biserni R, Cipriani F, Cocco P, Giacosa A, et al. A case-control study of gastric cancer and diet in Italy.Int J Cancer. 1989;44(4):611–6. [PubMed]
  5. Pandey KB, Rizvi SI. Plant polyphenols as dietary antioxidants in human health and disease. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. 2009;2(5):270-278.