Throwing a handful of herbs onto a plate of chips isn’t going to give you the same health benefits as eating a plate of vegetables and grains, but including them in your diet more readily could make a real difference.
From tearing some basil leaves onto your pasta to stuffing handfuls of coriander into a falafel mix, herbs are go-to cooking device. They make even the most bland dish more palatable with their rich flavours and colours. But did you also know that herbs are incredibly nutritious? In fact, some of these little leaves can offer more vitamins and minerals than what you might consider to be “proper” more substantial foods.
Of course, understanding the nutritional value of herbs isn’t anything new; people have been relying on plants for good health for generations. Well before we started cooking with mint and parsley, these plants were celebrated for the medicinal properties. Science, however, has now proved that many of them boast incredible health benefits.
Here’s why you should start making more of an effort to include herbs in your cooking and how to do so without compromising their goodness.
Herbs may help to reduce the risk of chronic illness
A herb is the leafy green or flowering part of a plant that’s consumed for culinary or fragrance purposes, and they’re “seriously underrated when it comes to their nutritional benefits”, believes Rohini Bajekal, a nutritionist from Plant-Based Health Professions UK. We see them simply as being a tasty seasoning but there’s so much more to them than simply elevating a dull dish.
“They may be small but they pack a powerful punch in terms of nutritional value,” Bajekal tells Stylist. “Most herbs contain polyphenols — plant compounds that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory capabilities. Polyphenols found in plant-based foods can reduce the risk of chronic diseases, especially when consumed as part of a healthy die rich in whole grains, beans, fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, nuts and seeds.”
It’s not just that herbs have been prized for their nutritional and medicinal value by Indigenous cultures for thousands of years, either. More recently, scientific studies have identified their use for specific ailments such as taking peppermint oil for IBS symptoms, ginger for nausea and turmeric for improving brain function.
Herbs can improve your gut health
“Using fresh herbs and spices in cooking is one way to diversify your plant-based food intake,” explains Tai Ibitoye, registered dietitian and nutritional researcher. This is great because it allows you to “feed gut microbes and increase their diversity.”
She points to findings from the American Gut Project which have suggested that people who consume 30 or more different plant foods per week (which includes herbs and spices) “have a higher gut microbiome diversity than those who consume 10 or fewer.”
Cooking with herbs reduces the need for salt, sugar and unhealthy fats
Hands up if you’re the kind of diner who always has one hand ready on the salt shaker to add a little extra flavour. For anyone looking to reduce their reliance of added salt and sugar, increasing the herb content of your meals might help.
Consuming excessive amounts of salt and sugar is really easy to do when so much of the food we buy is ready-made and processed. A diet high in salt can raise blood pressure, putting you at risk of heart disease and stroke. As such, the NHS advises adults to eat no more than 6g of salt a day.
Almost 70% of adults in England are estimated to be eating too much salt, according to the 2020 National Diet and Nutrition Survey study. “Herbs and spices flavour food without the negative health impact of too much sodium,” Bajekal explains. “Aside from their nutritional properties, they also make meals more delicious, flavourful and enjoyable.”
The thing to be wary of, however, is that some herb and spice mixes contain a lot of salt themselves. For that reason, Ibitoye recommends opting for fresh herbs and spices where possible.
They’re as nutritious as fruit and veg…
If you were to compare 100g of herbs and 100g of vegetables, “dried herbs and spices average the greatest amount of antioxidants of any food category,” says Bajekal. “While we use small amounts, they may still be important contributors to overall antioxidant intake, especially as they are used liberally in a number of cuisines.”
…but you have to eat a lot of them
However, it’s far harder to eat enough basil or coriander to out-do the vitamins and fibre found in, say, a kale salad or a bowl of couscous. Throwing a handful of herbs onto a plate of chips isn’t going to give you the same health benefits as eating a plate of vegetables and grains.
While herbs may be rich in B vitamins, they don’t contain them at the same level as many veg. “B vitamins are extremely important in making sure that the cells in our body are functioning properly as they help to convert food into energy, create new blood cells and maintain healthy cells,” says Hala El-Shafie, registered dietitian and consultant nutritionist. “Replacing vegetables with herbs would mean you’re taking in very little B vitamins and could lead to a weak immune system.”
Your best bet is to use herbs to enhance the nutrition and flavour of dishes without relying on them entirely. We need to be eating them “as part of our diet in addition to fruits, vegetables, wholegrains and legumes,” Ibitoye stresses. “Adding seasoning may enhance vitamins and mineral content of dishes slightly but not significantly as a lot would need to be included in cooking.”
Go for fresh herbs if possible
A study published in the International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition shows that herbs in powder or paste form retain significant antioxidant activity in most cases. “Use fresh herbs when possible but herbs in a paste or powdered form still have benefits,” says El-Shafie. Buy pots of fresh herbs at the supermarket or give growing your own a go.
When it comes to green herbs, some nutrients and flavour compounds will inevitably be lost in the drying process, and more will be lost with extended storage. “But that doesn’t mean that all dried herbs are low in nutrition,” she continues. “Oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) is the standard test used to measure different foods’ antioxidant activity. According to the ORAC scale, most dried herbs have far higher levels of antioxidant activity when compared to their fresh counterparts.”
For maximum flavor and nutrition, you want to pick your herbs right before you use them. It’s the same with fresh veg too; if you let fresh produce just sit in your fridge, you’re allowing all those nutrients to die. Bajekal explains: “A good rule of thumb is to choose good quality herbs that have a pleasant smell. Fresh herbs tend to have a shelf-life of around five days (refrigerating them can decrease the vitamin C content) whereas dried herbs have a shelf-life of around six months to up to a year depending on the type of herb and the way it is stored.”
How to cook and store herbs properly
While many herbs pack a powerful nutritional punch, how you cook them matters. Fundamentally, we use herbs for flavour but you can elevate the nutritional value of your meals by adding these plants and cooking and storing in a way that doesn’t destroy the vitamins.
Some herbs may lose their flavour if cooked at a high heat, while others maintain or increase their pungency during the cooking process. El-Shafie explains that the retention of vitamins “depends on how the food is being prepared. Vitamins such as vitamin C and B5 are heat sensitive and will dissipate when exposed to heat.” She also notes that water-soluble B vitamins are lost when boiled in water, so the less contact with water and the shorter cooking time when using herbs, the more vitamins are retained.
When it comes to storing dry herbs, you want to make sure that they’re placed in cupboards in air-tight containers as vitamin K is affected by light.
5 hero herbs everyone should eat more of
Ibitoye notes that “all types of herbs and spices can be used in cooking,” depending in your personal food preferences, taste preferences and the type of meals that you plan to cook. However, there are some super common flavours that also offer other benefits.
Ginger or turmeric for a kick
Tai recommends using ginger or turmeric if you like foods that have an ‘extra kick’ to them or have a strong flavour. “They are both sources of potassium, B vitamins and magnesium.”
Basil for all the nutrients
We all know just how beautiful basil can be, bringing that incredible balance of sweet and savoury flavour to even the dullest of dishes. What you may be less aware of, however, is that basil is a good source of vitamin K, manganese, iron, vitamin A, and vitamin C. “It’s also a source of calcium, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids,” says Bajekal, who explains that Holy basil (tulsi) is native to India and is considered sacred to Hindus. Basil is also the most widely sold herb in Britain.
Parsley for energy
“Herbs like parsley and spearmint are sources of iron, which is important in making red blood cells,” says Tai. Iron is responsible for carrying oxygen around the body and can help support the normal functioning of the immune system. 100g of parsley contains 6.1mg of iron and while very few people are going to use 100g of any herb in their cooking, she maintains that “adding some can help increase iron content slightly.”
Spearmint for bloating
Spearmint is part of the Mentha plant family. Bajekal suggests that drinking it in green smoothies or tea, or having it in summer salads “ may help to relieve digestive or IBS symptoms such as gas and bloating”. Drinking a couple of cups of spearmint tea per day “has been shown to help reduce symptoms in people with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) as it can help with hirsutism due to its anti-androgenic properties.”
Coriander for a vitamin C boost
Coriander is particularly rich in phytonutrients or beneficial plant compounds. Bajekal says that she loves sticking coriander leaves in a variety of Asian dishes, particularly as a garnish on top of dal. “When fresh, coriander leaves are a great source of Vitamin C which enhances the absorption of iron from the lentil dal.”
For more nutritional tips, healthy recipes and workout ideas, hop over to the Strong Women Training Club library.
Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.
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