They’re sitting in your cupboard, tucked away in your pantry, or hidden in a drawer; you thought they were only for taste. Little did you know these herbs were loaded with powerful nutrients. These “cupboard champs” add flavor and texture to boost your meals—and they also boost the body.
Basil is a fragrant herb used in many culinary dishes. Many are familiar with its small, delicate size—sprinkled on salads, stirred into teas, mixed into dressings or smoothies, added to your favorite pasta sauce—but did you know it can also grow large enough to be used as wraps when cooking to impart additional flavor?
Basil comes in a variety of colors, from green to deep purple to blue, with flavors that range from sweet to spicy to lemony, and even a licorice type.
So, what can basil do for your health? For starters, it has the ability to protect DNA—its antioxidants and phytonutrients are known to protect chromosomes and cell structures from radiation- and oxygen-based damage. The herb’s essential oils protect against antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Its natural anti-inflammatory properties and COX-2 enzyme inhibitors work similarly to aspirin or ibuprofen. Basil is also great for cardiovascular health: It provides the body with nutrients that help protect cell walls from free-radical damage, improve blood flow, and stop cholesterol from oxidizing in the bloodstream.
Also known as capsicum fruit, cayenne had its earliest origins in Mexico; in fact, Christopher Columbus was credited with finding this brightly colored fruit in the West Indies. Columbus thought it was a variety of black pepper and misnamed the plant, bringing it back to Europe after his first voyage, from which it spread to Africa and India.
Capsicum is a small, perennial type of shrub that grows in warm climates, but different varieties have developed with its rise in popularity as a condiment—to spice up soup or chili, or even to enhance the presentation of a dish. The most familiar of these varieties stem from thin-skinned, pungent, red and yellow peppers from Central and South America. Some of the milder forms are called paprika. Tabasco sauce is made from the most pungent variety.
Cayenne pepper can enhance circulation, digestion, and absorption. Its healing properties have been known to be helpful in arthritis, urinary tract issues, infections, ulcers, and respiratory ailments. It may also be helpful as a thyroid balancer, for heart health, and for cleansing.
A word of caution: Its volatile oil can be pungent and irritating to a variety of mucous membranes in the body. Therefore, it is recommended to start with small amounts and not to use it on a daily basis.
This pungent, sweet-smelling, warming spice is one of the world’s oldest. It comes from the inner bark of several varieties of evergreen trees, but the bark, leaves, and oil of the cinnamon tree are all used for medicinal and culinary purposes.
Cinnamon is often thought of as a seasonal spice—on top of oatmeal on a cold winter day, added to holiday cookie recipes, or sprinkled on sweet potatoes at family gatherings—but it offers many health and healing benefits year-round. Some of them may include: lowering cholesterol, reducing blood sugar levels, strengthening the cardiovascular system, helping with respiratory issues, relieving menstrual pain, reducing arthritis pain, helping to clot blood, and preventing tooth decay and bad breath. Cinnamon may also act as a brain and digestive tonic while offering immune support with its antifungal, antibacterial, antiviral, anti-parasitic, and antiseptic properties.
The word dill means “to lull,” which reflects its medicinal use as both an insomnia reliever and stomach soother. The herb, native to southern Russia as well as western Africa and the Mediterranean region, sports green leaves with a fernlike appearance and a sweet but soft taste.
Historically, dill was considered a sign of wealth among ancient Greek and Roman cultures. It was used by Hippocrates (known as “the father of medicine”) in a recipe to clean the mouth, and soldiers would also apply the burnt seeds to wounds to promote healing.
Dill’s volatile oils can neutralize particular types of carcinogens found in smoke from cigarettes, charcoal grills, and trash incinerators. It has also shown an ability to prevent bacterial overgrowth. In addition, dill is rich in calcium, making it beneficial in the prevention of bone loss.
Try fresh dill weed rather than dried—it is superior in flavor—by adding it to egg salads, sandwiches, fish, and even yogurt. Because the herb can perish quickly, store it in the refrigerator—either wrapped in a damp paper towel or with its stems placed in a small container of water, and use within a couple days.
Did you know this perennial herb is actually a member of the lily family? Garlic is a close relative of onion but, unlike the onion, has a bulb which is divided into several distinct cloves.
While used to enhance flavor—and a little goes a long way in items like salads, homemade veggie pizzas, and atop pastas—garlic has value as a medicinal herb as well. Hippocrates used garlic to treat a variety of health challenges, from infections to intestinal disorders as well as wounds, toothaches, leprosy, epilepsy, and even chest pain.
Garlic’s healing properties are useful in digestive, respiratory, urinary, and circulatory health. It may also lower blood sugar, blood pressure, and LDL (bad) cholesterol, while raising HDL (good) cholesterol. In addition, garlic has antimicrobial activity and may therefore defend against gram negative bacteria, fungus, and certain worms.
Marjoram is an aromatic herb from the mint family that originated in Egypt and Arabia. Oregano and marjoram are closely related but differ significantly in taste—marjoram is missing the phenolic compounds found in oregano’s essential oil.
Marjoram is now commonly grown in the Mediterranean region and other gardens around the world. It comes in three different forms: essential oils, fresh or dried leaves, and powder. The powder itself has many uses and is frequently used as a culinary additive to flavor soups, sauces, salads, and meat dishes. If you’re trying this herb for the first time, experiment by substituting it in recipes that normally call for oregano.
This herb may also appear in certain cosmetics such as skin creams, body lotions, shaving gels, and bath soaps.
Marjoram tea offers a variety of health benefits, including: calming the stomach and digestive system, improving appetite, relieving nausea, eliminating flatulence, curing or preventing basic intestinal infections, soothing painful stomach cramps, and relieving diarrhea and/or constipation. Marjoram is also a wonderful natural antiseptic, antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral agent, making it helpful against food poisoning, staphylococcus, tetanus, typhoid, malaria, influenza, the common cold, mumps, and measles.
Besides its great antimicrobial benefits, other benefits may include lowering blood pressure, improving circulation, preventing buildup of cholesterol, regulating the menstrual cycle, aiding as an anti-inflammatory and antidepressant, and warding off fungal infections.
Ginger is native to the coastal region of India, where it has been cultivated since before written history. Its first mention was in China around 400 BC; the spice has since been naturalized and is now cultivated in Jamaica, China, India, Africa, and the West Indies. Its generic name, zingiber, comes from two words meaning “known already to the ancients.” The most common name—ginger—stems from the Sanskrit gringa, which means horn, and vera, which means body. This is in reference to the shape of its root.
Ginger can help with indigestion, flatulence, diarrhea, loss of appetite, stomachache, fever, motion sickness, body pain, and nausea.
Try some ginger tea, mix it with water or juice, or add some to your salad, soup, or cookies for a heartwarming taste for your palate and your stomach.
In Europe, oregano is called wild marjoram, as it is closely related to the herb known as sweet marjoram, mentioned previously. Oregano is native to northern Europe and grows in the Mediterranean as a perennial plant, but in the harsher climates of North America, oregano is cultivated as annuals.
In ancient times, the Greeks and Romans prized oregano as a symbol of joy and happiness, and it was their tradition for brides and grooms to be crowned with a laurel of oregano.
Oregano was cultivated in France in the Middle Ages, where it became an important herb in the Mediterranean diet; however, this tasty herb didn’t make its way to America until the early 20th century when GIs returning from Italy brought it home.
The volatile oils in this herb include thymol and carvacrol, both of which have been proven to inhibit the growth of bacteria (including Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus). The oils have also been found to be effective for inhibiting or killing yeast, E. coli, Proteus, Klebsiella pneumoniae, listeria, salmonella, Shigella dysenteria, and Giardia lamblia.
In laboratory studies, oregano has been shown to demonstrate high antioxidant capability. In fact, on a per gram, fresh weight basis, oregano was shown to have 42 times more antioxidant activity than apples, 30 times more than potatoes, 12 times more than oranges, and 4 times more than blueberries!
Some other health benefits of oregano include: anti-septic, anti-spasmodic, carminative, cholagogue, diaphoretic, expectorant, stimulant, antifungal, antiviral, and antibacterial. Try some oregano in Italian dishes, fish, lamb, salads, vegetables, garlic bread, or anything that you want to spice up.
Parsley is native to the eastern Mediterranean countries, as well as the United States and Great Britain. This green leafy herb comes in a variety of types and is used not only to add color and flavor, but also as a plate garnish and an after-dinner breath-freshener—its abundant supply of chlorophyll can help neutralize odors.
Its healing properties are helpful for the urinary system, kidney and gallstones, jaundice, menstrual difficulties, asthma, coughs, indigestion, and dropsy.
There are three species of mint in cultivation—spearmint, peppermint, and pennyroyal—of which spearmint and peppermint are the most popular for flavoring and cooking.
Peppermint is found in many products from toothpaste to tea. In fact, almost 1 million cups of peppermint tea are consumed on a daily basis! Now, that is a lot of tea! Did you know it’s the third most popular tea flavor in the world?
Its popularity lies in not only its refreshing taste, but also its volatile oil, which has been shown to have antimicrobial and antiviral activity.
Peppermint contains an abundance of menthol, which is clinically proven to aid in digestion and to relieve menstrual cramps and nausea. Its healing properties are also useful for digestion, colds, flu, fever, colic, and rheumatism.
In addition to a flavorful tea, try using peppermint to enhance the presentation of a dish or to add a refreshing flavor to your favorite desert.
Rosemary is an evergreen shrub as well as a member of the mint family. Its name is derived from the Latin word rosmarinus, meaning “dew of the sea,” which is in reference to its light blue flowers and natural desire to grow in wet environments.
Rosemary is used in Mediterranean cooking as both a food preservative and flavor enhancer. There are also references in history to its use in aromatherapy. The Greeks would use a twig of the herb under their pillow to help prevent nightmares, and research suggests that the Native Americans used it topically as insect repellent and also to help prevent baldness.
Rosemary can improve memory and cellular health, inhibit foodborne pathogens, help to alleviate muscle pain, and aid in digestion.
Sage is a small evergreen shrub with purple flowers. This member of the mint family means “savior” in Latin—it was formerly thought to be an herbal savior of mankind. In fact, English herbalists believed that the condition of this plant in their garden would determine whether their business prospered or failed.
Sage is native to the Mediterranean region and is now found in kitchens around the world. Its volatile oil is part of its desired medicinal quality, as it has been demonstrated to have antimicrobial, antispasmodic, and even antioxidant properties. Sage’s healing properties are useful for fevers and digestive and stomach complaints.
Its antioxidant properties have also been helpful in preserving meat products.
Sage is a great culinary herb and is wonderful in cheese, poultry, or meats.
Turmeric enjoys its roots in Indonesia and southern India, where it has been cultivated there for more than 5,000 years. In fact, it served an important role in many of the traditional cultures of the East. It was introduced into Europe through Arab traders in the 13th century and has only become popular recently in Western society.
Turmeric has a peppery warm and bitter taste. Traditionally, turmeric has been called Indian saffron due to its deep yellow-orange color, which bears a resemblance to saffron.
Besides being used as a condiment and a textile dye, turmeric has also been prized for its healing properties. Its popularity has been increasing due to its recent researched therapeutic properties and reputation as an anti-inflammatory agent.
Turmeric’s healing properties have been found useful in treating hepatitis, inflammatory bowel diseases, bruises, colic, parasites, yeast, molds, bacteria, ulcers, hemorrhages, and spasmodic dysmenorrhea.
Besides all the health benefits, turmeric can turn an ordinary dish into an exotic treasure for the taste buds.
This evergreen shrub is native to the Mediterranean region and is cultivated in southern Europe as well as California. It is widely used in culinary baked goods, meats, condiments, and vegetables.
Its generic name, thymus, comes from the Greek word thymos, which means “strength”—relating to its invigorating odor. The species name, vulgaris, is Latin for “common” and was probably applied by those who did not understand it as a symbol for bravery. In ancient Greece, it was a great compliment to tell someone they smelled of thyme.
Thyme’s healing properties come from its volatile oil, thymol, which makes it a useful antioxidant, antibacterial, astringent, anthelmintic, and carminative.
A little goes a long way with thyme (and its oil can be toxic in large doses). Try a dash or a sprig alongside your favorite dishes.
Who knew seasoning our food could reap so many benefits? The next time you grab that cupboard champ—to flavor your weeknight dinners, spice up a side dish, or add a unique flavor to a breakfast favorite—remember how good it tastes to keep healthy!
By Michelle Tonkin, ND