Using fresh herbs and spices to season your food is a great way to get an extra boost of nutrients in your diet. Louisiana’s summer months offer the perfect climate for growing an abundance of these natural flavor enhancers that you can use to spice up your meals without adding salt, fat, or sugar!
For hundreds of years people have recognized the use of herbs and spices for their culinary and medicinal properties, herbs being the leaves of plants while spices are the dried aromatic seeds, berries, roots, and pods. In more recent times we have come to discover that phytochemicals – the non-nutritive compounds such as pigments and antioxidants – from these plants are the greatest contributor to their potential human health benefits. Notable benefits include: antioxidant effects, detoxification, increased immune function, antibacterial effects, and decreased inflammation.
Substituting natural herbs and spices for seasonings that are high in salt, sugar, and fat is an easy way to decrease your risk of adverse health effects. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends we keep our daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg per day, the recommendation falls to 1,500 mg if you are 51 or older, African American, or have high blood pressure, diabetes, or kidney disease. Unfortunately salt is a sneaky seasoning. Just 1 teaspoon provides 2,325 mg of sodium, exceeding the Academy’s recommendation. On the other hand one of the highest sodium spices, chili powder, contains only 51 mg of sodium per teaspoon, and others such as rosemary, oregano, ginger, and thyme contain barely any!
So how should you go about incorporating these health promoters into your diet? For starters, you should always wash fresh herbs and pat them dry with a paper towel. One excellent warm-season herb is basil, which contains flavonoids that are known for their antibacterial properties, and beta-carotenes which are powerful antioxidants. Basil combines well with rosemary and thyme, which are known to have anti-inflammatory and improved gastrointestinal effects. Spices such as cumin and curry powders may have anti-carcinogenic effects and are good to use when cooking ethnic dishes. You can add almost any herb or spice to salads and dips for added color, flavor, and nutrition. Fresh herbs should be wrapped in a paper or cloth towel and stored in the refrigerator for up to one week. Their dry counterparts can last for up to one year and should be stored in a cool, dry, place.