Herbs and spices are loaded with nutrients and antioxidants yet add next to nothing calorically. They can literally transform a dish—both in taste and nutritional content. Here are a few herbs and spices you should get more familiar with.
Extracts from sage leaf have shown promise in increasing long-term memory and cognitive function, and the antioxidants might help protect against neuronal degeneration. Along with parsley and rosemary, components in sage may also promote bone health.
Use it: Fresh is best, and the soft gray-green leaves are most classically paired with pork, apple, chicken and fish as well as tomato-based dishes.
Research has shown that eating cinnamon, which comes from the bark of a tropical tree, is an effective way to boost insulin activity and reduce blood glucose levels as well as lower triglycerides and cholesterol. While high doses have been used in studies, regular consumption of this powerful antioxidant (just half a teaspoon has as many antioxidants as a half-cup of blueberries) may still be of benefit.
Use it: Sprinkle liberally on yogurt or fruit, even add it to your tea—cinnamon tastes naturally sweet and can be used to replace or reduce sugar. Also try using in savory dishes such as stews and casseroles to add dimension and enhance other flavors.
Chili, paprika and cayenne pepper
All contain capsaicin (where the heat comes from), an antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties. It’s great for boosting immunity and clearing congestion—add to soup for beating off a cold. Chili may also boost metabolism, curb hunger and aid in weight loss. Chilies vary widely in their “hotness,” so be careful when selecting. The hottest parts are the seeds and white membranes. Remove these for a milder flavor and be sure to wash your hands after handling hot chilies.
Use it: Add fresh chilies, chili powder or paprika to curries, stews, eggs and salsas. Chili also goes well with chocolate—try adding a pinch next time you make a dark chocolate dessert to enhance flavor.
Perhaps the most potent of the herbs, oregano contains four times more antioxidants than blueberries. Active components include thymol and carvacrol, antibacterial agents that help fight off infection. Oregano is also a good source of vitamin K (essential for bone and heart health), fiber and several minerals including manganese.
Use it: Oregano is common in Mediterranean cooking—use fresh for maximum benefit and pair with tomatoes, eggplants and grilled or roasted meats. Or use in salad dressings, marinades and sprinkled onto eggs.
One of the main active ingredients in ginger is gingerol, a compound that inhibits inflammation and can be useful in managing chronic pain such as arthritis and migraine pain. Ginger also aids in digestion and relieves nausea, which is why some pregnant women swear by it to aid morning sickness while others consume it to avoid motion sickness.
Use it: Ginger has a wide range of application, from sweet to savory: Grate fresh ginger into soups, stir-frys, marinades and salad dressings, make tea from large slices and use the dried form in rubs and desserts.
Studies have shown that rosemary could lead to a reduction in tumor growth and inhibition of tumor cell activity for both breast and skin cancers in rats. It may also help promote bone health, and the aroma alone has been shown to improve alertness and mental acuity.
Use it: Rosemary can be used fresh as well as dried—think roasted vegetables, roasted chicken and meats, as well as tomato sauces and marinades.
The active phytochemical in turmeric is curcumin, which has antioxidant properties that prevent the formation of free radicals and neutralize existing ones. Studies have shown that curcumin can reduce inflammation, aiding in the recovery and regeneration of tissue—the main goal following training.
Use it: The most common use of this spice is as the main character in curried meals (see right for a curried lentil soup recipe). The rhizomes have a ginger-pepper flavor that is used to flavor curry powder, prepared mustard, dressing, cheeses and butter.