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A herb can be any leaf part of a plant, fresh or dried, that is used in cooking. Any other component of the plant, which is generally dried, is referred to as a spice. For example, a spice includes cinnamon (bark), peppercorn (berries), cumin (seeds), turmeric (roots), chamomile (flower), cloves (buds), and saffron (the stigma of a flower).
Herbs are a terrific way to add flavour and colour to any sort of dish or drink which would otherwise be bland. Herbs could be part of a sweet or savoury dish, and they can allow you to give your food a whole other depth of flavour without the need to add salt, sugar, or fat. In addition to a boost of flavour and colour, each herb has its own set of potential health-supporting properties.
This article explores how some of our kitchen’s most popular herbs can be used in cooking to add not only flavour, but also to support our overall wellbeing. Herbs can bring a boost of flavour to your dishes with potential added health properties. Let’s harness the power of herbs.
Potential Health Benefits Of Herbs
Apart from the delicious taste herbs can bring to a meal, consuming this natural ingredient may help support our overall wellbeing. Some herbs, such as chives, mint, basil, oregano, and sage, have been found to help prevent and manage symptoms of some common ailments. The research is ongoing, but studies have shown herbs are abundant in antioxidants, especially sage, oregano, and thyme, by helping to reduce low-density lipoproteins (also known as ‘bad’ cholesterol).
Fresh herbs often contain higher antioxidant levels than dried or processed herbs. However, if you are using herbs to harness their potential health-promoting qualities, try to add any fresh herbs at the end of cooking, or as you serve your meal, as this will preserve their potential wellness-supporting properties.
Humans have utilised the use of herbs to support health throughout history. Many herbs have been celebrated for their possible therapeutic properties before they were even considered for culinary use. Modern science has now shown that our ancient ancestors’ instincts were correct, and many herbs do indeed carry remarkable possible health benefits. Here are some of the world’s healthiest herbs, as supported by research:
- Sage May Improve Brain Function and Memory – Considering the Latin name for sage is “Salvere”, which means “to save”, it’s of no surprise it has a reputation for its purported therapeutic properties. Sage was used a lot in the middle ages to support health, and was believed to provide protection from the plague- though this likely wasn’t true then, and isn’t true now, before you get any ideas.
However, some modern research indicates that sage may be able to improve brain function and memory. A drop in acetylcholine levels (a chemical messenger in the brain) is often associated with symptoms of memory and thinking skills issues that come with Alzheimer’s. Sage has the potential to inhibit the breakdown of acetylcholine. Scientists in Iran conducted a four-month-long study on 42 individuals with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. They reported that sage extract was shown to produce significant improvements in brain function.
There have been additional studies completed on healthy people, both young and old, which have signified sage may improve brain function. The bottom line is, sage has the potential to be suitable for supporting brain health for all.
- Peppermint has the Potential To Relieve IBS Pain and Reduce Nausea –Peppermint does not only make a refreshing cup of tea; it may also have some potential therapeutic properties. Throughout history, there have been records of peppermint being used in folk therapies and aromatherapy. As is the case with most herbs, the oily component contains the agents responsible for the purported health effects.
If you are one of 11% of the world population that suffers from symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you may be happy to hear research into natural pain management is being completed. There are now many studies indicating that peppermint oil may help improve pain management when it comes to some symptoms associated with IBS. Peppermint oil appears to work by relaxing the colon’s smooth muscles, which may relieve discomfort experienced during bowel movements. It may also help to lessen abdominal bloating, which is a common digestive symptom of IBS.
In addition to peppermint being used to help with bowel issues, it may work as an excellent aromatherapy remedy for nausea when inhaled. In an extensive study of over 1,000 women in labour, peppermint aromatherapy caused significant reductions in nausea. It also showed the potential to help reduce nausea symptoms after surgery.
- Holy Basil Could Potentially Help Fight Infections and Impact Immunity –This is not your basic basil found in the fruit and veg shop; holy basil is a sacred herb from India (hence the name). Holy basil has been found to inhibit the growth of a range of moulds, yeasts, and bacteria.
One small study conducted in 2011 found holy basil may impact the immune system function by increasing specific immune cells in the blood. Other research pieces studying holy basil showed it might reduce blood sugar levels before and after meals, along with supporting the relief of anxiety symptoms. However, these studies were preliminary, and much more research is needed to back up such claims.
- Fenugreek Improves Blood Sugar Control – Fenugreek rose in popularity when it was commonly used in Ayurveda, a historic alternative healing system in India. It was primarily used as a potential way to enhance libido and masculinity. While fenugreek’s possible effects on testosterone levels are inconclusive, the herb does appear to have beneficial effects on blood sugar levels.
Fenugreek contains a plant protein called 4-hydroxyisoleucine. This protein may improve the function of the hormone insulin, according to one 2009 study. Multiple human clinical studies have identified that at least 1 gram of fenugreek extract per day may reduce blood sugar levels, particularly for those with diabetes.
- Rosemary may prevent allergies and nasal Congestion – The United Kingdom has one of the highest rates of allergic conditions in the world. It is projected that over 20% of the population now struggles with one or more allergic disorders. Luckily for the UK, rosemary grows in abundance in local soils, and is a popular herb in many staple UK recipes.
There is an active ingredient in rosemary called rosmarinic acid. This naturally-occurring substance has been found to possibly suppress allergic responses and nasal congestion. In 2004, a team of researchers studied 29 participants and found that both a 50 and 200 mg dose of rosmarinic acid were shown to suppress allergy symptoms. The number of immune cells in nasal mucus also reportedly reduced, along with decreased congestion.
- Hemp may help correct the imbalance of fatty acids and protein deficiency –The number of vegans in Britain has quadrupled in recent years. Although it brings many health benefits, some vegans struggle to get enough healthy protein. When protein levels diminish, weakness and fatigue sets in, this is not good for anyone wanting a healthy lifestyle. Many vegans and vegetarians have added hemp as one of their primary sources of protein.
This plant-based product is a brilliant dairy-free and natural substitute for whey. For example, a handful of hemp seeds may provide the minimum daily requirement of protein for adults. When hemp is consumed as food or drink, the body gets what it needs without non-essential calories. Hemp has a 33% protein percentage, which is second only to soy, at 35% protein content. Many find hemp protein to be more easily digestible, as it is made up of largely globular proteins (65% edestin and 33% albumin). Unlike fibrous proteins, globular proteins are soluble in water, so they are much more easily absorbed by our digestive system.
The consumption of hemp may also have the ability to correct the imbalance of fatty acids in our daily diets. This is based on the theory that Westerners eat more omega 6 fatty acids than the intake of equally essential omega 3 fatty acids. This imbalance could be harmful to our overall health.
The perfect balance of linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid in hemp seed oil may be able to fulfil our need for these essential fatty acids (EFAs). The complete protein and essential oils in hemp seeds could be considered the ideal, ‘perfect’ ratios for human nutrition.
Although very rare, some people do experience adverse effects from consuming herbs. These cases tend to be when someone has eaten a herb in very large doses. For example, the side effects of eating rosemary can include vomiting, spasms, and other unwanted symptoms. Adverse reactions to eating herbs are very rare, and they are generally considered safe to consume.
Hemp as a Cooking Herb
Hemp comes from the cannabis plant family (also known as its genus), but unlike its cousin marijuana, it will not cause intoxicating effects. Instead, hemp and hemp-derived products (such as CBD) have the potential to offer a wide range of potential supplementary benefits. Hemp contains all nine essential amino acids recommended for good health.
When hemp is consumed, it is highly nutritious, and maintains the necessary fatty acid proportion required for humans to live healthy, happy lives. It is an excellent dietary supplement in any form. It does not contain lactose or whey, and is a fantastic substitute for people who have nut allergies.
Those who may struggle to get enough healthy protein in their diets, such as vegetarians and vegans, can supplement their diet with protein-rich hemp. Around 40% of the total weight of a hemp seed is considered healthy. Hemp seed oil is a consumable oil containing 80% essential fatty acids, and can be used for cooking at low temperatures, or as a salad dressing.
75-80% of the fat found in hemp is polyunsaturated, predominantly omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids. The hemp quantity of omega 3 is in equilibrium with the amount of omega 6. Although the precise optimal ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 is still being researched, the ratio in hemp (about 3:1) might be close to ideal for maintaining or supplementing a balanced diet.
Hemp is also a unique addition to food, as its omega 3 content is not 100% alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Hemp also encompasses two other omega 3 fats: stearidonic acid, and small amounts of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). Alpha-linolenic acid is very rare in plant sources. Hemp plants include 50-70% Linoleic acid (LA), 15–25% alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), and 1–6% gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). Gamma-linolenic acid is an omega 6 oil, which is generally naturally made from linoleic acid by our bodies.
It is important to have a good ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 in your diet. The majority of Western diets contain too much omega 6, which is associated with many adverse health issues. It is therefore essential to increase your intake of Omega 3’s. Hemp is thought to provide a higher omega 3 content as a dietary supplement than the famous ‘fatty’ walnut.
Unfortunately, we cannot use fresh or dried hemp leaves for cooking in the United Kingdom. Although growing hemp is legal with the correct licences, farmers can only cultivate the seeds and stems. The leaves and flowers currently fall under the category of illegal cannabis, so they are classed as a controlled substance.
If you want to use hemp in the kitchen, the herb form will need to be put to the side for now, and instead, hemp seeds and CBD oil or tinctures can be used. CBD and hemp seeds are legal in the UK, and can be enjoyed in the kitchen without any legal restrictions.
Hemp seeds can be added to all sorts of recipes, from your morning smoothie to an indulgent alfredo pasta. Luckily, they are pretty easy to cook with, and they have a pleasant nutty flavour. Hemp seeds are said to taste like a cross between pine nuts and sunflower seed. If you are not a fan of cooking with hemp seeds, you can also get your healthy hemp-y dose through CBD.
CBD (short of cannabidiol) is a natural compound found in hemp plants. It is extracted from the plant, and then suspended in a carrier oil (such as hemp seed or coconut oil). CBD oil can be simply added to food and provides all the associated potential benefits of hemp without any notable adverse effects.
Tips For Cooking With Herbs
Commonly, fresh herbs are more delicate in flavour than their dry counterparts. So, if adding them to your cooking, it is best to do so at the very end. Always taste your dish as you go along, to check you have added enough of your chosen herb. Be cautious not to go over the top, as a moderate amount of herbs is all you need to add a distinct flavour to the dish. If you add too many herbs, their flavour will overpower other ingredients, ultimately ruining your meal.
Some herbs are hardier than others, such as parsley and rosemary. These types of herbs can be added at the start of your cooking process, as they will retain their flavours. In addition, dried whole herbs where the leaves are still attached to their stalk have a more robust flavour than those found in jars or packets.
Once you have figured out the delicate balance of herb combinations, you may want to try making your own “bouquet garni”. They are easy to make, and simply consist of various herbs tied together, or mixed herbs in a little muslin bag. You can then add the “bouquet garni” into your cooking for flavour, and then simply remove it before serving. Some herbs should only be used to flavour a dish and not be eaten. An excellent example of this is bay leaves.
Herbs can add a sense of excitement to your cooking, as you are only limited by your imagination. They can be added to practically any recipe. Why not try adding herbs to:
- Baked goods (mint and CBD cupcakes, anyone?)
- Casseroles and stews
- Drinks (Hot or cold)
- Salad dressings
Herbs don’t only have to be added to a dish while cooking. They can also be added once you have served the meal. It is an excellent way of enhancing the flavour, aroma, and visual appeal of your dish. For example, when you next serve up a midweek spaghetti Bolognese, why not add some fresh basil leaves on top, for a friendly pop of green flavour?
Herb and Food Combination Ideas
Food and herb combinations are limitless, but there are some traditional pairings that you just can’t beat. Give some of these a try:
- Basil – pesto sauce, tomato-based dishes and tomato juice, potatoes, shellfish, meat, pasta, and with strawberries.
- Bay Leaves – casseroles, stews, soup, marinades for meat dishes, and steeped in stocks.
- Coriander – seafood, stir-fries, curries, soups, salads, and guacamole.
- Dill – potato dishes, sour cream, fish, salads, and cheeses.
- Marjoram – pizza, cheese dishes, egg dishes, meat, and fish.
- Mint – yoghurt, desserts, sauces, drinks, meat, and vegetable dishes.
- Oregano – bread, stuffing, tomato sauces, pasta, meat, egg dishes, and pizza.
- Parsley – vegetable dishes, pesto, salads, butter, egg dishes, pasta, rice dishes, and seafood.
- Rosemary – meat, fish, bread, sauces, and soups.
- Sage – stuffing, chicken dishes, cheese dishes, and pumpkin dishes.
- Tarragon – egg dishes and salad dressings.
- Thyme – bread, chicken, soups, stock, stews, stuffings, butter, cheese, mustard, and vinegar.
Each plant tastes a bit different, so remember to taste your herbs before adding them to your cooking. The freshness of the herb will also play a factor in its flavour. Herbs that were picked on the day you eat them will be delicious, but their freshness will start to diminish after a couple of days.
As tempting as it may be to toss herbs directly into the pot, tender herb leaves, such as chives, basil, coriander, parsley, and dill, should be chopped just before use. Thicker herb leaves like sage and rosemary can be very pungent, so it is a good idea to chop them finely and use them in moderation. If you prefer, you can add thicker herbs whole, and then remove them before serving.
It is a good idea to add delicate fresh herbs at the end of cooking, to retain as much of the fresh herb flavour as possible. If you are opting for a thicker, woodier herb like thyme, sage, rosemary, or oregano, add them during the cooking activity so that they have time to meld with the other flavours.
Take the time to ensure that you are eating balanced, healthy meals. As delicious as herbs are when added to butter and creams, these are best saved as a treat rather than everyday foods. Herbs can taste just delicious on grilled fish and salad.
Popular Herb Combinations
Although it can be satisfying to utilise one unique herb flavour at a time, herbal combinations can also work well if you know the basics. Some classic culinary herb combinations include:
- Basil – with chives and oregano
- Bay Leaves – with parsley, thyme, oregano, and marjoram
- Chives – with basil and tarragon
- Dill – with chives, parsley, and tarragon
- Oregano – with basil, parsley, chives, thyme, and bay leaves
- Sage – with rosemary and marjoram
- Thyme – with bay leaves, parsley, and rosemary
As the food landscape is ever-evolving, particularly with the influence of new flavour combinations introduced from different cultures around the world, the availability of herbs that previously were uncommon can now be found on shop shelves. New ways of using herbs are also being shared. For example, Vietnamese food is well known for its use of herbs in such large quantities that sometimes there are more herbs than salad leaves in their famous staple Vietnamese salads!
If you are not keen on the idea of combining your own herbs, there are plenty of ready-mixed options available. The pre-mixed herbs you find in supermarkets tend to be in dry form, but are a convenient way to add flavour to your favourite dishes. These little jars of herbs can export you to a faraway land. The expertly blended herb mixtures are available in pretty much any food genre you can imagine, and they are great if you are short of time during mid-week meal prep.
Be adventurous with herbs in your kitchen
Herbs can be used in an infinite number of ways in the kitchen, and they bring about some fantastic health potentials. The more you experiment with herbs, the more adventurous your cooking will become.
Just remember that dried herbs are much more potent in flavour than fresh. If you are unsure how much to use, a general rule is one teaspoon of dried herbs equates to four teaspoons of fresh herbs.
Try following a recipe that demands one or two herbs you haven’t used before for your next meal. Why not even give a new ingredient a try in your kitchen, such as an infused hemp seed salad dressing? Besides possibly enhancing the flavours, smells, appearance, and textures of your meals, the more herbs you try, the wider the variety of potential health benefits you may be likely to receive.
Written by | Infused Amphora Team
The Infused Amphora Team is dedicated to creating resources to educate and engage consumers on the growing evidence of CBD benefits and the extensive health and wellness properties of CBD Oil.
Contributor | Angus Taylor CEO
Infused Amphora “Learn” is intended for informational purposes only and is NOT a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.