Are you unsure of which herbs to use with different foods? If you answered yes, don’t sweat it… you can use this article as a mini-guide to learn how to pair nutrient-dense herbs with food. Plus, discover the therapeutic uses of culinary herbs along the way.
A Brief Look at Herbs in History
If you asked the Emperor of Charlemagne in the eighth century how to define herbs, he would say they are ‘The friend of physicians and the pride of cooks.’ Herbs are a beautiful, multifaceted asset to animals and humans—often used both medicinally and for culinary purposes simultaneously.
Herbs have been used medicinally for thousands of years; maybe even since the beginning of time. In the Middle Ages, there was more of a spiritual and even magical element to illness. However, that changed when the famous Father of Medicine, Hippocrates, started referring to the disease as a biological phenomenon. Hippocrates knew many conditions were curable with medicinal plants, and he recognized the natural connection between botanicals and the human body. He studied and documented over 400 varieties of beneficial herbs, which eventually led to the construction of the Alexandria School of Medicine.
But some of these same herbs are also used in food.
Cooking With Medicinal Herbs
You don’t have to worry about calories from herbs because, in general, they don’t contain enough calories to be concerned.
But how do you know which herbs to pair with foods? Well, there are no steadfast rules. However, some foods pair well with certain herbs better than others. Let’s break this down into three categories—meat/fish, wine, and fruits and vegetables. Then we will discuss the medicinal properties of each herb.
Beef: oregano, thyme, rosemary, cumin
Pork: thyme, rosemary, clove, caraway, oregano
Chicken: thyme, rosemary, oregano, cumin
Fish: oregano, rosemary, thyme, cilantro
White: basil, caraway, cilantro, cinnamon, clove, thyme
Red: basil, caraway, cinnamon, oregano, rosemary, thyme
Dry: caraway, cinnamon, oregano, rosemary, thyme
Sweet: basil, clove
Fruits and Vegetables
Tomatoes: basil, cilantro, caraway, oregano, rosemary, thyme, cumin
Potatoes: rosemary, thyme, cilantro, oregano, rosemary, thyme, cumin
Berries: basil, cinnamon, clove
Carrots: basil, cilantro, cinnamon, clove, thyme, cumin
Cruciferous: caraway, clove, oregano, thyme
Apples, Pears, Peaches: basil, caraway, cinnamon, clove
Squash: cinnamon, clove, oregano, rosemary
Peppers: basil, cilantro, garlic, oregano, rosemary, cumin
Therapeutic Properties of Culinary Herbs
Basil– protects the body from the damaging effects of chemotherapy (1) and reduces oxidative stress in the body (2). Basil is also anti-inflammatory and has been used to reduce fevers and symptoms of the common cold and may even reduce stress. In addition, it’s a blood purifier and glucose reducer and may lower cholesterol and the risk of a heart attack.
Basil’s nutritional components: Rich source of key nutrients like Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium, phosphorus, beta carotene.
Caraway- studies document caraway’s antioxidant properties and suggest it may prevent age-related diseases like heart disease, cancer, diabetes and hypertension (3). Caraway is often used for digestive issues, bloating and intestinal spasms. It can also help control mucus and cough and help kill microbes and bacteria. In addition, eating caraway in the evening may help with sleep because of its high magnesium levels.
Caraway’s nutritional components: Rich in magnesium, calcium, iron, phosphorous, potassium, zinc, copper, manganese and selenium. Key macronutrients include B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin E, lysine, tryptophan and essential fatty acids.
Cilantro– there were over 150 reports published on the health benefits of the cilantro plant between 1952-2015. (4) Cilantro leaves lower blood sugar, improves cognitive abilities and alleviates anxiety. In addition, the seeds of the cilantro plant (coriander) can stop oxidative deterioration, hinder microbial growth, improve mood, lower blood pressure and reduce pain.
Cilantro’s nutritional components: Cilantro is an excellent source of beta-carotene, Quercetin, Lutein, and many vitamins, including vitamins K, A, C, and E. It also contains amino acids and minerals like calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorous, and Choline.
Cinnamon– has been touted for eons as a spice and as herbal medicine. Evidence suggests (5) that cinnamon has anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antioxidant, antitumor, cardiovascular, cholesterol-lowering, and immunomodulatory effects. Cinnamon has also demonstrated the ability to imitate insulin.
Cinnamon’s nutritional components: Cinnamon is an excellent source of vitamin K, manganese, calcium, magnesium, potassium and phosphorous.
Clove– may be the most potent antioxidant of all spices; it is often used in Indian medicine, cooking, and even hygiene products because of its antimicrobial, antiviral, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, anesthetic, and pain-relieving properties. (6) Clove is an energetic spice known to boost circulation, aid in digestion, amplify immunity, and can even be used as an insect repellent.
Clove’s nutritional components: Clove contains many essential B vitamins and is exceptionally high in Vitamins E and K. It also has many amino acids and omega-3s and a ton of manganese. There’s no lack of healthy minerals either as it’s lofty in iron, magnesium, calcium, copper, potassium, zinc, selenium and phosphorous.
Cumin– is probably most recognizable as the main ingredient in taco seasoning. Therapeutically it’s known to have antioxidant properties and to reduce blood clotting. (7) It’s also been shown to have anti-cancer and antimicrobial effects and can even lower blood sugar.
Cumin’s nutritional components: Cumin contains high levels of iron, manganese and choline. It also contains beneficial omega-3s and 6s and has lesser amounts of vitamin A, E, K and thiamin. It’s also relatively high in minerals like calcium, magnesium and potassium.
Oregano– is well studied (8), revealing its antioxidant, antibacterial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties. In addition, oregano is an excellent antiseptic and may help alleviate cold, asthma, cramping, diarrhea, and indigestion symptoms. Further, it demonstrates usefulness to the cardiovascular and nervous systems.
Oregano’s nutritional components: Oregano is high in vitamins K, C, B6, and A and betaine, choline, riboflavin, folate, niacin, thiamin, and pantothenic acid. Further, it contains healthy levels of vital minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, zinc, copper, manganese and selenium.
Rosemary– has been reported to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic and anticancer properties. (9) Rosemary is also a natural antibiotic and can be made into tea or added to food when you feel under the weather. Further, it helps keep skin healthy and regulates metabolism.
Rosemary’s nutritional components: Rosemary is an excellent source of vitamin A and is rich in manganese, calcium, magnesium, potassium and phosphorous.
Thyme– can be used to soothe inflamed tonsils and reduce inflammation. (10) It has potent antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant. (11) Thyme has been used for centuries to alleviate gastrointestinal distress, cough and cold symptoms. It can also lower blood pressure and boost immunity, memory and mood.
Thyme’s nutritional components: Thyme contains essential fats like omega-3s and 6’s as well as a plethora of vitamins like vitamins A, C, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, B6 and folate. It also supplies the body with vital minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and especially zinc.
You can play around with various herbs to determine which ones you like best and with different foods and wines. No matter which ones you ultimately decide to use, one thing is for sure, you can certainly benefit from eating them!
(1) Stajković, Olivera, et al. “Antimutagenic properties of basil (Ocimum basilicum L.) in Salmonella typhimurium TA100.” Food Technology and Biotechnology 45.2 (2007): 213-217. https://hrcak.srce.hr/clanak/43789
(2) Al-Maskari, Masoud Yahya, et al. “Basil: A natural source of antioxidants and neutraceuticals.” Natural Products and Their Active Compounds on Disease Prevention. Nova Science Publishers, Inc., 2012. 463-471.https://squ.pure.elsevier.com/en/publications/basil-a-natural-source-of-antioxidants-and-neutraceuticals
(3) Javed, Rafia, et al. “Caraway.” Medicinal Plants of South Asia. Elsevier, 2020. 87-100.https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780081026595000070
(4) Singletary, Keith. “Coriander: overview of potential health benefits.” Nutrition today 51.3 (2016): 151-161.https://journals.lww.com/nutritiontodayonline/FullText/2016/05000/Coriander__Overview_of_Potential_Health_Benefits.8.aspx
(5) Gruenwald, Joerg, Janine Freder, and Nicole Armbruester. “Cinnamon and health.” Critical reviews in food science and nutrition 50.9 (2010): 822-834.https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10408390902773052
(6) Milind, Parle, and Khanna Deepa. “Clove: a champion spice.” Int J Res Ayurveda Pharm 2.1 (2011): 47-54.https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Milind-Parle/publication/267402397_Clove_A_champion_spice/links/5772b03408aeef01a0b65cce/Clove-A-champion-spice.pdf
(7) Fatima, Tabasum, et al. “Antioxidant potential and health benefits of cumin.” J Med Plants Stud 6 (2018): 232-6.https://www.plantsjournal.com/archives/2018/vol6issue2/PartD/6-2-28-858.pdf
(8) Singletary, Keith. “Oregano: Overview of the literature on health benefits.” Nutrition Today 45.3 (2010): 129-38. https://journals.lww.com/nutritiontodayonline/Abstract/2010/05000/Oregano__Overview_of_the_Literature_on_Health.9.aspx
(9) Moore, Jessy, Michael Yousef, and Evangelia Tsiani. “Anticancer effects of rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis L.) extract and rosemary extract polyphenols.” Nutrients 8.11 (2016): 731. https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/8/11/731
(10) MAQBUL, MUAZZAM SHERIFF, et al. “A comparative study of different types of thyme essential oils against Streptococcus pyogenes to determine their biochemical and antimicrobial properties.” Orient J Chem 36.2 (2020).https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Syed-Iqubal-2/publication/340256300_A_Comparative_Study_of_Different_Types_of_Thyme_Essential_Oils_Against_Streptococcus_Pyogenes_to_Determine_their_Biochemical_and_Antimicrobial_Properties/links/5e7faf8ca6fdcc139c1033a7/A-Comparative-Study-of-Different-Types-of-Thyme-Essential-Oils-Against-Streptococcus-Pyogenes-to-Determine-their-Biochemical-and-Antimicrobial-Properties.pdf
(11) Alsaraf, Shahad, et al. “Chemical composition, in vitro antibacterial and antioxidant potential of Omani Thyme essential oil along with in silico studies of its major constituent.” Journal of King Saud University-Science 32.1 (2020): 1021-1028.https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S101836471931777X