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13 Edible Herbs and Spices You Need in Your Healthy Pantry

spices, low sodium, alternative and complementary medicine

Expanding your spice cabinet can have two healthy effects on your life. One, you could potentially use less sodium, decreasing your risk for conditions such as cardiovascular disease and stroke. Two, many spices have incredible health benefits, even in small doses. Adding some of these herbs spices to your foods in place of salt is a simple way to improve your health without feeling deprived of flavor.

Anise Seed
Anise is an annual, aromatic Mediterranean herb from the parsley family. Anise seeds provide a flavor similar to black licorice when used in foods. Medicinally, anise is prescribed as a digestive aid which can calm an upset stomach. It may also be beneficial for colds with coughs and runny noses as it acts as an expectorant in the body. For women, the spice could help increase milk flow when breastfeeding, treat menstrual symptoms, and boost libido. Nutritionally, anise is a good source of fiber and calcium, and a very good source of iron.

Anise seed can be added to cookies (stir in 1 ½ teaspoon anise seed into one package of sugar cookie mix) or may be used to top a more healthful dessert of baked apples.

Cilantro, the leaves of the coriander plant, is used around the world, particularly in Asia and Latin America. The leaves look a bit like flat Italian parsley. Most of us probably know cilantro best as being a key flavoring component of Mexican and Southwestern foods such as salsa.

Cilantro has many potential health benefits, including anti-inflammatory capacities that may help conditions such as arthritis, cholesterol-lowering properties, and may be protective against bacterial infection. Cilantro is a good source of fiber, iron, and magnesium. It is also rich in vitamin K, which helps the blood clot. However, if you are on a blood-thinning medication, be sure to talk with your doctor first before significantly increasing the amount of cilantro (or any food containing vitamin K) you consume.

Cinnamon has gotten a lot of attention from the medical community recently for its possible benefits for those with type 2 diabetes as it may help lower blood sugar and could potentially help improve cholesterol levels. But the spice has been used for many years in both traditional Chinese medicine and in Ayurveda. It is believed to improve energy, vitality and circulation and may help improve digestion. Cinnamon may also have anti-viral properties and is another spice that is a good source of fiber.

Desserts are probably the most common foods that people first think of when buying cinnamon. It adds a warm sweet flavor to foods without adding fat or calories. For a healthy-style dessert using cinnamon, try making a fruit salsa with cinnamon chips or a yogurt dip for fruit using cinnamon spice.

In addition to dessert, cinnamon can also add a rich flavor to chili recipes and as a flavoring in homemade oatmeal.

Like cinnamon, cumin may help keep blood sugar levels in check for patients with diabetes. It may also help boost metabolism and improve digestion. Cumin seeds may have anti-carcinogenic properties due to its free radical-scavenging actions. Cumin is also a good source of calcium, iron, and magnesium.

Cumin seeds add a nutty, peppery flavor to Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes such as chili and plays a key role in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine where it is a component of curry powder. Cumin is a great complement to bean and rice dishes as well.

Fennel and anise are often confused, as both have a similar flavor to licorice. It is most often used in Italian and other Mediterranean cuisines. It can be purchased fresh, where it looks like a white or pale green bulb with a stalk and leaves. Fennel seeds can be purchased in the spice aisle. It is a savory spice used in fish, cheese spreads and vegetable dishes.

Fennel symbolizes longevity, courage, and strength. It contains numerous anti-oxidants, including kaempferol and quercetin which may protect the body against cancer, infection, aging and degenerative neurological diseases. The dietary fibers may help with digestive health and with decreasing bad cholesterol levels. Nutritionally, fennel seeds are rich in iron, calcium, potassium, manganese, selenium, zinc and magnesium.

Ginger is another spice used traditionally as a medicine in Asia and India as a digestive aid (controlling nausea caused by pregnancy, chemotherapy or motion sickness) and an anti-inflammatory agent. It may also help improve long-term diabetic blood sugar control.

Try adding ginger to rice or vegetable dishes; try pickled ginger as a garnish to Asian entrees, or grate gingerroot into lemonade or salad dressings. Ginger spice is excellent this time of year in products such as ginger bread, ginger snaps, and ginger ale.

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Mint is an herb available both fresh and dried. It is a leaf best known for use in foods such as lamb, fruits, tea, and as a flavoring to vegetables such as peas, carrots, potatoes, and in soups and sauces.

Mint is another spice helpful in treating a number of digestive ailments, most notably irritable bowel syndrome. Nutritionally, it is especially rich in carotenes and vitamin C as well as a good source of magnesium, copper, iron, potassium and calcium.

Nutmeg is another common baking spice popular during the holidays. The hard brown seed has a warm, spicy yet sweet flavor. In addition to desserts, nutmeg matches well with vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower, eggs, custards, fruits, pasta, pumpkin, ricotta cheese, rice sausages, and stuffing.

The spice is a good source of fiber and has anti-inflammatory properties. It is also used as a digestive aid and as an anti-bacterial and anti-fungal agent.

The warm, aromatic flavor of oregano makes it a perfect addition to Mediterranean and Mexican cuisines. The oils of the spice have been shown to inhibit the growth of bacteria. Oregano also contains many phytonutrients, including thymol and rosmarinic acid, which function as powerful antioxidants. It is a nutrient-dense spice, containing fiber, vitamin K, manganese, iron, calcium, vitamin E and tryptophan.

Use oregano as a garnish on pizza or pasta, add to a side dish of sautéed mushrooms and onions, or sprinkle over egg dishes such as omelets and frittatas.

Rosemary oil has been recently shown to have the ability to boost brain power and improve cognitive performance. This popular garden herb is rich in rosmarinic acid and other antioxidants which act as anti-inflammatory agents. It also stimulates the production of acetylcholine, which may help boost learning and memory.

The fresh herb is available year-round and matches well with most meats including beef, poultry, fish and game, vegetables such as mushrooms, onions, peas, and potatoes. It also makes a good accompaniment to bean dishes.

Saffron stigmas (the thread-like parts of the flower) are used to make saffron spice. The spice is often quite expensive because it takes 75,000 saffron blossoms to produce a single pound of saffron spice. However, it is a very beneficial spice to health, and may be worth the extra cost.

Saffron is used for asthma, cough, whooping cough (pertussis) and to loosen phlegm as an expectorant. It may also be beneficial for sleep problems (insomnia), cancer, atherosclerosis, intestinal gas, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease. Women may find the spice beneficial for easing menstrual cramps and other symptoms of PMS.

Try adding a pinch to seafood and vegetable soups, curry dishes, paella, or to plain grilled chicken.

A recent study found that thyme could be used as an effective anti-fungal medication. It might also be an effective acne treatment. The spice is full of antioxidants including thymol, flavonoids apigenin, naringenin, luteolin, and thymonin which could potentially prevent cellular damage leading to cancer and aging.

Thyme is a wonderful addition to bean, egg and vegetable dishes. Nutritionally, it is rich in vitamin K, iron, manganese, calcium, fiber and tryptophan (an amino acid).

Turmeric, the main ingredient used to make curry, has a peppery warm bitter flavor. It is a relative of the ginger root, but has also been traditionally associated with saffron due to its deep yellow-orange color. Turmeric is a powerful herb long used in traditional Chinese and Indian systems of medicine. It is a potent anti-inflammatory agent, an effective treatment for inflammatory bowel disease, and may offer relief for rheumatoid arthritis or cystic fibrosis sufferers. There is also some evidence that turmeric could protect against certain cancers.

Add turmeric to egg salad to give it a bold yellow color. Mix the spice with rice, raisins and cashews for an original side dish. Try adding turmeric to vegetable dishes such as steamed cauliflower or to beans such as lentils.