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Use herbs for flavor - and health
Many herbs have long been known to have medicinal benefits from their anti-fungal, antibacterial, antiviral and/or anti-inflammatory properties.
For therapeutic benefits, herbs should be used in concentrated forms such as capsules, tinctures and teas carefully prepared by knowledgeable individuals.
But for enhanced flavor and nutrition, common cooking herbs can be used quite simply as additions to salads, soups, gravies and other foods.
Herbs contain micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Found abundantly in plant-based foods, antioxidants fight free radicals that damage the body's cells and facilitate health problems like cancer and aging.
Although fruits, vegetables and whole grains contain micronutrients, herbs contain higher concentrations of them, so adding herbs to other foods can increase the health benefits, says Laura Lago, herbalist and owner of Tara's Herbs in Yuma.
“Herbs and spices are about midway between something therapeutic and medicinal and food … and there are definitely more micronutrients in herbs and spices,” she says.
However, she stresses that herbs should be used in addition to, and not instead of, fruits, vegetables and grains. “We don't want to usurp the vegetables with the herbs.”
When cooking with herbs, it is inconsequential whether fresh or dried herbs are used because both forms are beneficial to health, she says. But it is necessary to use three to five times the amount of fresh herbs versus dried herbs to flavor food.
But using herbs to enhance flavor is not as important as using herbs for another purpose, says Lago.
“I encourage individuals to research and to know the herbs and spices that we use on a routine basis and how they can enhance digestion. If there's one thing we want when we're cooking, it's to make sure we're digesting because we're eating to get nutrients that we need to live healthfully.”
She discusses some known health benefits of the following common cooking herbs, as well as simple ways to include more of them daily.
Parsley's dark-green color is a clue that it contains a concentration of antioxidants. It is sometimes used as garnish on a plate, but a small bit can be chewed after meals to freshen the breath. It's also mildly diuretic and could induce a bit of sweating, both of which can have a cleansing effect on the body.
A simple way to get more fresh parsley into the diet is to chop it and add handfuls of it to salads and soups. It also enhances the flavor and nutritional content of foods like mashed potatoes, pastas and rice.
Parsley can also be added to a cup of green or peppermint tea as it steeps.
Thyme is a very aromatic herb, which means it has essential oils in it, and essential oils are very strongly anti-fungal, antibacterial and antiviral.
In therapeutic doses, it can help with coughs, colds and flu.
But as a cooking herb, it can be added to food to aid digestion.
Thyme has a strong flavor, so it should be added a little at a time until the desired taste is reached. It's commonly used to enhance the flavor of meats, gravies and rice.
Fresh chopped thyme can be sprinkled liberally over soup or any fresh foods. Although it's commonly added to rice during the cooking process, it is especially good when sprinkled on rice that's already been cooked.
Thyme is also a bit of a preservative that can help prolong the shelf life of some foods stored in a refrigerator.
Rosemary is also a very aromatic herb that has a lot of essential oils, and it is an aid for circulation when used in therapeutic doses.
Used as a cooking herb, however, it can induce wakefulness and mental clarity as a person breathes in the essential oils that are released into the air while the herb cooks.
Rosemary is used to enhance many foods such as meats, pastas and potatoes. A fresh sprig of the herb added to olive oil and balsamic vinegar makes a delicious dip for breads.
Sage has been used traditionally for menopausal women for hot flashes, to help with fevers and as a diuretic.
When used as a cooking herb to flavor meats and poultry, it aids digestion by helping to break down fat in the digestive tract.
Like thyme, sage is also a bit of a preservative that can prolong the life of some foods kept in the fridge.
Sage is typically used in stuffing, turkey, chicken or gravy. But chopped fresh sage is also delicious on vegetables and in soups.
Some people drink sage tea for its relaxing effect, to aid digestion and to treat hot flashes. To make sage tea, simply add five or six whole sage leaves to boiling water, simmer for about five minutes, cover pot and steep for an additional 10 minutes. Add lemon and honey, to taste.