Do you give herbs the respect they deserve?

When you cook, do you use herbs such as parsley and basil simply as a garnish to dress up your creations? If so, it’s time to give them the respect they deserve.

According to accumulating research, herbs offer a wealth of disease-fighting power including anti-cancer action and an assortment of heart healthy perks.  Ounce for ounce, they offer more potent antioxidant power than many nutrition-packed vegetables. Instead of a meagre sprig or two, using them in generous quantities for everyday cooking may indeed be a smart healthy eating strategy.

For example,  Indian scientists looked at the effect of basil on both melanoma cancer and its treatment by radiation therapy in laboratory animals. Not only did the basil decrease tumour size in the animals and improve their survival rates, but it also decreased some of the negative consequences associated with radiation therapy.

This doesn’t mean that you can have basil with abandon and skip sunscreen, but whipping up some batches of pesto – a mix of basil, garlic, nuts, cheese and olive oil – seems to be a health-promoting and tasty idea.

In research from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,  published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, scientists found that the herbs oregano, rosemary and marjoram played a role in the functioning of the hormone, insulin  and suggested further research be conducted in looking at the herbs and  diabetes.

Parsley, the almost universal garnish, offers a host of cardiovascular benefits. In Morocco, where parsley is used to reduce blood pressure readings, researchers also found that the herb decreases the likelihood of developing blood clots which can lead to heart attacks and strokes.

Rosemary is another herb with a hotbed of research. Scientists have been investigating one of its compounds called carnosol – its list of potential benefits is certainly quite striking. On the cancer front, it may defend against prostate, breast, skin, leukemia, and colon cancer.

It’s thought that the herb’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant actions may play a role here. More and more research is pointing to inflammation as being a culprit in a range of diseases. For example, inflamed arteries are more susceptible to plaque build up while inflamed cells can more easily become cancerous. Inflammation is also being labelled as an offender in the development of diabetes. Keeping the flames of inflammation under tight control is definitely now part of disease prevention strategies.

In addition, research is revealing more advantages of rosemary, along with other herbs such as sage, basil, and parsley in fighting off the effects of toxic compounds,  advanced glycation end products (AGEs). AGEs are produced in a variety of ways including when meat is cooked at high temperatures, such as when it’s grilled or fried.   These toxins keep appearing in scientific literature as being potent promoters of various ailments such as heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. And the rap sheet for these toxins continues to grow.

As a result, research showing which dietary strategies can counter these harmful toxins is indeed welcome news.

Using a mix of herbs can offer even more health benefits than just using one at a time. Researchers from the University of Georgia investigated the impact of five herbs known to have a protective effect against colon cancer cells: thyme, rosemary, sage, spearmint, and peppermint. They found that various herb combos had greater anti-cancer action against the colon cancer cells than when single herbs were tested on their own.

Up next: tips on incorporating herbs into everyday menus

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What’s your favourite herb and how do you use it? Please share in the comment section below.

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Categories: Research Roundup

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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