When it comes to kicking up the flavor when you're cooking, fresh herbs and spices can play a starring role. Not only are they great stand-ins for sugar, salt and fat, but they also boast plenty of nutritional benefits.
"Studies suggest that even small amounts of spices such as cinnamon, ginger and oregano can provide a healthy dose of disease-fighting antioxidants, often even surpassing what you'd find in a vitamin supplement," says Sarah Chapel, a registered dietitian at Henry Ford Health. "Many herbs and spices help reduce inflammation and stave off disease. Others aid in digestion and help enhance nutrient absorption."
Playing With Spice
Few things add more flavor and flair to a dish than herbs and spices. Here, a few favorites that promise to kick your meals — and your health — up a notch.
- Cinnamon: Cinnamon is a powerful remedy for a variety of ailments from digestive issues to diabetes. Just 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of this healthy spice daily has been shown to help lower blood sugar, LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides in people with type 2 diabetes. There's even research to suggest that adding a dash of cinnamon to perishable foods can inhibit the growth of bacteria.
Try this: Sprinkle cinnamon on oatmeal, over peanut butter toast with sliced bananas, on unsweetened applesauce or fold it into plain yogurt. Add 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon to your coffee grounds before brewing. Cinnamon also infuses a dash of flavor into nutrient-rich favorites like sweet potatoes and roasted carrots.
- Oregano: Like cinnamon, oregano is chock-full of powerful antioxidants. "This potent herb contains vitamins A, C, E and K, as well as a little fiber , folate, vitamin B6, iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium," says Chapel. "One teaspoon contains 6 micrograms of bone-building vitamin K and the same amount of antioxidants as three cups of spinach."
Try this: Give canned soup an upgrade by stirring in 1/2 teaspoon of oregano. The herb is also great as an infused oil that could be used in salad dressing: Heat one tablespoon of olive oil, a pinch of red pepper flakes and 1/2 teaspoon of oregano in a small pan over medium-low heat for two minutes or until the mixture smells fragrant.
- Ginger: This go-to winter spice has various components that have been studied for their possible role in managing and preventing disease. Used therapeutically since ancient times, ginger is a common remedy for nausea, bloating and gastrointestinal discomfort. In fact, doctors frequently recommend ginger to help alleviate morning sickness and chemotherapy-induced nausea. Research suggests it may also play a role in weight management.
Try this: Add 1/8 teaspoon of ground ginger to pancake, waffle or muffin batter, or sprinkle the spice over applesauce or toast with peanut butter. Ginger works equally well in sweet and savory dishes — and, of course, as a condiment for sushi.
- Nutmeg: Nutmeg is a tasty spice commonly linked with eggnog at the holidays or in baking. It's rich in anti-inflammatory compounds and studies suggest it may help reduce the risk of cancer by stifling tumor growth. "Nutmeg also has a hint of sweetness, so it's a perfect replacement for sugar in your coffee," Chapel says.
Try this: Add 1/4 teaspoon to ground coffee, oatmeal and soups, or sprinkle it over acorn or butternut squash.
- Black pepper: Black pepper not only kicks up the heat in your favorite dish, it also stimulates the digestive enzymes of the pancreas and enhances nutrient absorption. The pungent spice is a powerful antioxidant and boasts plenty of disease-fighting properties.
Try this: Grind and use this healthy spice to add depth to soups, salads, meat and grain dishes.
Selecting and Storing Spices
Stocking herbs and spices in your kitchen makes it easy to add flavor to dishes. But you don't need a massive supply to make your dishes sing. "Find a few you like and start to experiment," Chapel says. "It’s a good idea to explore flavor profiles and how they complement different foods. Garlic, basil and oregano pair well with tomatoes, for example."
Just keep in mind that herbs and spices vary in potency depending on where they’re purchased, whether they’re fresh or dried, and how you store them. Dried herbs and spices won't go "bad," but they will lose potency and flavor over time.
To maintain freshness and maximize flavor, it's important to select and store herbs and spices appropriately. Here's how:
- Choose herbs that are perky and bright in color. Avoid herbs that are slimy, wilted or spotted.
- Remove the herbs from the packaging, dry them and trim the stems.
- Place the freshly trimmed stems in a glass of fresh water.
- Cover the herbs with a paper towel to help keep them from drying out.
- Store in the refrigerator for five to seven days.
- Look at the color through the jar and try to avoid spices that look faded. Use your senses.
- Shop where there’s heavy traffic. You don’t want to buy spices that have been sitting on the store shelf for two years.
- In cases where you can buy the whole spice, like cumin seed, mustard seed or coriander seed, buy them whole and grind them yourself to retain flavor.
- Keep spices in an airtight container — and in the freezer if possible.
- Since spices begin to lose their potency after six months, develop a rotation schedule.
Still not sure how to add herbs and spices to your cooking repertoire? A nutritionist or registered dietitian can help. You might even consider signing up for a cooking class!
Sarah Chapel is a registered dietitian with Henry Ford Health’s Department of Prevention and Community Health. She provides nutrition counseling services, education and healthy cooking demonstrations for community members, local groups and Henry Ford Jackson Hospital staff.