The Word on Herbs

If you find yourself reaching for the salt shaker because your meal is lacking flavor, it is time to spice up your life! Herbs and spices are a great way to intensify and add flavor to home-cooked meals without the additional fat, salt, or sugar. Not only do you get the benefit of utilizing less salt, but herbs are both flavorful and functional in the diet! Herbs are generally known as the leaf of the plant used in cooking while the buds, bark, root, berries, seed and stigma of the flower are the spices.

Most people know the importance of eating a variety of fruits and vegetables to support a healthy diet, but eating a variety of herbs may also provide health benefits. Antioxidants are  known as "free radical scavengers" because they help to slow damage to the cells. Examples of herbs rich in antioxidants are oregano and cloves. Oregano goes well in Mediterranean and Mexican cuisine and makes a nice addition to soups, casseroles, dressings, and sprinkled on a sandwich. Try adding clove to muffins, pancakes, sauces, applesauce, baked fruits, and oatmeal! Other herbs such as rosemary and peppermint contain antioxidants, as well as antimicrobial properties due to the polyphenols found in them.

Next time you are reaching for a marinade that may contain a lot of sodium, try using a dry rub made with herbs and spices instead! The best way to reap the potential health benefits of herbs is to include them as part of a well-balanced diet with lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes.

Fresh vs. dried

If using fresh herbs, it is important to know which are considered tender herbs and which are woody herbs. Tender herbs such as basil, chives, cilantro, dill, mint, and parsley are delicate and should be added near the end of cooking or as garnish. Woody herbs like lavender, sage, oregano, rosemary, and thyme can withstand long cooking times. Both tender and woody herbs should be cut gently with a sharp knife to retain the flavor as much as possible.

Using fresh herbs grown from your garden can be rewarding, but not always convenient. For a more convenient option, dried herbs can be utilized in a lesser quantity to replace fresh herbs in a recipe. If a recipe calls for one tablespoon of fresh herbs, using one teaspoon of dried herbs instead is a good rule of thumb. It has been concluded that herbs retain their phenolic content and antioxidant properties during the drying process, so dried herbs can keep their spot in the kitchen cabinet!

There are benefits to both dried and fresh herbs so use whatever works best for you! If you just can't bring yourself to pay for a small bunch of fresh herbs at the grocery store, you may save money and have a fresher product by starting an indoor herb garden!

Quick tips for starting an indoor herb garden

  • Best plants for indoor herb garden include: chives, rosemary, oregano, parsley, spearmint, peppermint, thymes, lemongrass, marjoram, and sage
  • Choose a window that gets light for at least six hours a day. Ensure the window is not letting in too much cold air. Indoor herbs will do best between 65-75 degrees.
  • Ceramic or plastic pots with drainage holes work best indoors because clay pots tend to dry out quickly with the use of an air conditioner and furnace.
  • Place a saucer or liner under your pots to ensure that water can drain through the pot but will not leak onto the windowsill.
  • Utilize a vegetable fertilizer when planting. Read the label to understand how much and how often to fertilize. Over fertilizing will produce a lot of foliage, but the herbs will lose some of their powerful flavor.
  • Spray herb plants with a water mister a couple times each week.


Written by: Kara Haakinson, MS, RD, LD

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