Updated: Nov 2
We unashamedly love herbs in our cooking, the more the better. Firstly, herbs are delicious. Across all cultures they serve as flavourful contributors to the kitchen. Secondly, their inherent bioactive compounds – polyphenols - confer a range of powerful health benefits. Lastly, they are great to grow at home, with a little love and tenderness.
In this article we will look not only at how and why herbs support health but also how best to use them to our long-term advantage. We will reference some of science as well as terms that you might have seen in the media or have been used to market at you by the supplement industry.
Enjoy our exploration into the fascinating world of herbs and health...
What are Herbs & Why Should We Care?
Herbs are generally defined as “A plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, savory, or aromatic qualities.” (Merriam Webster Dictionary) and come in one of two types: soft – leafy, or hard - with woody stems.
There is evidence of plants being used for health, likely for the last 50,000 years or so. Certainly herbs have been under active cultivation, for culinary and medicinal uses, for the last few thousand years. We have had a long time to experiment with the resources around us. But, outside of the culinary realm, what makes herbs special?
Essentially herbs' positive health effects relate to chemical compounds called polyphenols. These potent compounds, found in whole foods and concentrated in herbs and spices, not only add vibrant colours and flavours to our meals but also offer a myriad of health benefits that support well-being and fight chronic illness. Polyphenols have been studied intensively for their protective roles against numerous chronic conditions, including:
Decreasing cancer risk
Improving vascular and heart health
Lowering LDL cholesterol and improving triglycerides
Reducing blood pressure
Lowering systemic inflammation
Improving weight management
Lowering blood sugar
Benefiting brain health and cognitive function
Reducing arthritic inflammation
Perhaps you have read or heard about the health benefits of traditional diets, like the Mediterranean diet or those of centenarians living in ‘Blue Zones’? You may have seen advertising for anti-oxidant rich ‘superfoods’ or supplements? It is often in relation to their high polyphenol content.
What are Polyphenols?
Alongside carotenoids and phytosterols, polyphenols are a large and diverse group of natural compounds found in plants that have powerful health promoting effects. There are 4 main groups:
Flavonols: Sources include citrus fruits, olives, onions, kale, broccoli, apples, berries, chocolate, tea (green/black), beans, cherry, strawberries, cocoa and apples.
Flavones: Sources include chamomile, parsley, celery, hot peppers, tea, oranges, capsicum, broccoli
Flavanols: Sources include green tea, dark chocolate, cacao, Brussel sprouts, apples, onion, kale, leek, beans, cherries, milk thistle, red onion and acai.
Flavanones: Sources include citrus fruits, orange, grape, lemon, soy beans, soy milk, miso, tempeh
Anthocyanins: Sources include blueberries, strawberries, cherries, purple potatoes and red grapes.
Isoflavonoids: Sources include soybean, chickpeas, beans, nuts, pistachios.
2. Phenolic Acids:
Hydroxybenzoic Acids: Sources include berries, onions, tea and coffee.
Hydroxycinnamic Acids: Sources include apples, berries, plums, cherries, peaches (some citrus fruits), vegetables (carrots, cabbage, eggplant, and artichoke), cereals, tea, coffee, grapes and wine.
3. Stilbenes: The best known source being resveratrol, found in red grapes, red wine and peanuts.
4. Lignans: Abundant in flaxseeds, sesame seeds and whole grains.
Polyphenols, often aromatic, are plants’ own defensive mechanisms against harsh light, attacking bugs and fungi, the stresses that their environments create for them. Gram for gram, herbs contain very high levels of flavonoids and phenolic acids compared to other plants and produce. Given their historic use, they a safe and highly effective way to add health to one’s diet. Remarkably, consuming culinary doses of herbs - a handful here a teaspoon there – on a regular basis positively promotes health. This gives us every reason to add herbs to our diet.
It is worth repeating…
"The science shows that eating herbs regularly positively affects health and protects against a variety of chronic illnesses."
How Do Herbs Promote Health?
One of the key ways polyphenols benefit health is through their potent antioxidant properties. Polyphenols and their antioxidants, or their metabolites (the precise mechanisms in vivo are unclear), play a crucial role in neutralising harmful free radicals in the body, molecules that can cause oxidative stress and damage cells. Free radicals are both a result of our own internal energy creation (through metabolism) and are also created by a gamut of everyday stressors: cigarette smoke, stress, trauma, infection, heat injury, pesticides, air pollution and even excessive exercise.
As polyphenols reduce oxidative stress and inflammation in our cells and tissues, they lower the risk of chronic diseases. They have even been found to positively affect the composition of the gut microbiome, countering obesity and promoting weight management.
However, as with any medicinal compound, more is not always better. Just because “it comes from a plant” does not mean that it is always healthy: dose matters. Over consuming polyphenols, more than a culinary dose of herbs (or spices), can be counterproductive to one’s health. More on this later...
Herbs and the Kitchen
Making polyphenol-rich foods a part of your daily diet is a simple and enjoyable way to support your health. Common herbs, fresh and dried, are amongst the richest sources of polyphenols, they can be a cheap, convenient and fun way to improve long-term health and well-being. What do we mean by common herbs? Those that are on supermarkets shelves and our spice racks.
Polyphenols can be destroyed by cooking, so add some herbs towards the end of the cooking process for additional health and taste.
Let’s single out a variety of well-known and well-researched herbs just from one botanical family, the Lamiaceae. You might recognise them as widely used in Mediterranean cuisine.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum): Known for its sweet and slightly peppery flavour, basil is a staple in Mediterranean cuisine, particularly in Italian dishes like pesto and caprese salad.
Marjoram (Origanum majorana): Similar to oregano (below) but milder, marjoram is often used in Italian and Mediterranean cooking, especially in soups and tomato-based dishes.
Mint (Mentha spp.): With its refreshing and cool taste, mint is widely used in both sweet and savoury dishes. Spearmint and peppermint are popular varieties, often used in beverages, desserts, and Middle Eastern dishes.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare): A key component of Italian and Greek cuisines, oregano offers a robust flavour and is commonly used in pasta sauces, pizzas, and grilled meats.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): Rosemary boasts a pine-like aroma and is commonly used in roasts, stews, and bread recipes. It pairs well with meats and potatoes.
Sage (Salvia officinalis): Sage has a slightly peppery and savoury taste, often used in stuffing for poultry, sausages, and rich meat dishes.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris): Thyme has a subtle earthy flavour and is a versatile herb used in a variety of dishes, including soups, stews.
Many of the polyphenols in the Lamiaceae consist of phenolic acids, flavones, phenolic diterpenes and flavanones. But other families of herbs have other benefits:
Other botanical families include popular herbs with other phenolic profiles: bay leaves (Lauraceae), Roman camomile (Asteraceae), fenugreek (Fabaceae) and lemon verbena (Verbenaceae).
Terroir and Synergy
Just as in grape cultivation for wine, dependent on where and the conditions under which they are gown, herbs will have different proportions and quantities of polyphenols. Soil, light, water, stress – all affect their levels of polyphenols. Thyme cultivated in France is subtly different than that grown in India.
This is why it is important to enjoy herbs, and foods, from a variety of sources. To receive benefit, as best one can, from as many different nutrients as possible. And once ingested, individual polyphenols do not work in isolation, they appear to work in synergy. This is one reason why nutrition science is so complex. It is very difficult to identify the benefit of a single compound in isolation when we eat ‘real’ food. There are over 8000 polyphenols, providing millions of potential combinations of chemicals that affect our health.
A Word on Supplements
Well marketed supplements containing polyphenols may seem convenient but in many cases the science is not clear if they have the same benefits as consuming whole foods herbs. Perhaps beneficial, perhaps not.
There is a real risk of negative side effects when polyphenols are consumed in large amounts in the form of dietary supplements or as plant extracts. These polyphenol mega doses would be impossible to achieve by normal food consumption. Supplementary intake can commonly block the absorption of iron, affect the action of other polyphenols, reduce the benefits of exercise and possibly lead to unintended consequences and interactions with medications. Note that there is no requirement for long-term testing for pharmacological doses of polyphenol supplements.
If your multivitamin has a few herbal extracts in it, that’s fine but but beware taking high doses of specific polyphenols unless advised by your doctor. A case in point, many cultures use herbs as medicine, for example, in Traditional Chinese Medicine. That requires a medical practitioners license.
Focus on enjoying natural, whole foods, that provide a synergy of polyphenols and nutrients that promote health. This includes macro-nutrients (proteins, carbohydrates and fats) and all important fibre, to support a healthy gut microbiome. What does this mean on the plate?
"Enjoy real food, and add herbs for flavour!"
Love your Herbs and Whole Foods
From the aromas of Mediterranean fare to the invigorating zest of Asian cuisine, herbs not only elevate taste but also promote long-term health. They are nutritional powerhouses, combatting chronic illness through their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
Add herbs to your daily diet, find flavours that your enjoy, learn a couple of simple recipes that use them and have a go!
By enjoying a diverse array of polyphenol-rich foods, herbs especially, we nourish our bodies and support our well-being. Let herbs become our allies in achieving a healthier, more vibrant and tastier life.
More than just taste, herbs can bring health and joy to our lives. Read on for our complete collection of articles, recipes and more...
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