Written by Mary Perry, MS, RD, LDN at Zone Diet
on October 10, 2019
you were asked to name some polyphenol rich foods or those known for
their high levels of antioxidants, chances are blueberries, strawberries,
kale, dark chocolate, red wine, or coffee might make your list. One
group that’s often overlooked but has long been studied for its
antioxidant properties are herbs and spices. Learn more about their health benefits and some helpful tips for buying, storing and using them.
The Difference Between Herbs and Spices
When it comes to terminology herbs and spices are often used
interchangeably, but they do differ with regards to which part of the
plant they come from. Simply put, herbs are the leaves of plants and
spices are everything else such as the fruit, seeds, and roots. Both can
be used fresh or dried, but typically spices are dried
Fun fact…plants can be both an herb and a spice like dill and coriander.
In the U.S. the leaves and stems of the coriander plant are the herbs
we know as cilantro or Chinese parsley and the seeds are the spice
What are the Health Benefits of Herbs and Spices?
Every day we are exposed to stresses in both our internal and
external environment that can impact the health of our body. This can
include UV exposure, radiation, chronic or low-grade inflammation,
smoking or exposure to microorganisms. Exposure to these stresses can
produce what are called free radicals in our cells and tissues. High
levels of free radicals, also known as oxidative stress, play a key role
in the onset of diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes,
cancer and Alzheimer’s. This is where the intake of
antioxidants becomes critical for our overall health. Polyphenols help
to scavenge and neutralize free radicals and restore balance to our
cells. Since herbs and spices are rich sources of polyphenols they can
help minimize this damage.
Polyphenol Content of Herbs and Spices
The info graphic above highlights some commonly used herbs and spices and the amount of polyphenols they contain 3. View the full list here.
The goal of this isn’t to make anyone start taking out their calculator
while preparing meals, but to highlight that anywhere you can
incorporate herbs and spices into your daily intake it only enhances the
health benefits you gain.
Even when used in small amounts some herbs and spices are incredibly
rich in polyphenols. For example, 1 tsp of capers supplies 540 mg of
polyphenols. To reach this same level you would have to consume about 1
2/3 cups of blueberries or 3 cups of raw broccoli. The benefit of using
herbs and spices is they can fill in the gaps when your intake of other
polyphenol rich foods falls short. Plus they have no sugar and little to
How Many Polyphenols Should We Consume Each Day?
Dr. Sears recommends aiming for a minimum of 1,000mg of polyphenols per day
for general wellness. This can come from a combination of foods such as
herbs, spices, fruits, vegetables, cocoa, and plant-derived beverages
such as coffee and tea.
Tips When Using Herbs and Spices
Buying: Look for herbs that are fragrant
and look fresh. Avoid ones with brown spots or tiny holes from insects.
Try and buy only what you need to avoid waste. When it comes to spices
if you buy them whole and grind when you need them (a cheap coffee
grinder does the trick) they can maintain their freshness longer.
Storing: Keep in a cool place away from
light and moisture. Try to avoid storing in the cabinet above or to the
side of your oven where the heat can deteriorate them quicker. Keep
tightly covered and replace after 1 to 3 years. Spices that are part of
the red pepper family such as chili powder and paprika stay fresher
longer and retain their color better if stored in the refrigerator
Planting: For herbs you use regularly
consider planting in pots outside or in small containers you can keep on
your windowsill over the winter months. This way you can take what you
need when you need it.
Recipe Considerations: If your recipe calls for fresh herbs but you only have dried, 1 teaspoon of dried herbs equals the amount in one tablespoon fresh 4.
To get the most flavor when using dried herbs and spices crush them
using the back of a spoon prior to including in a recipe to release some
of their aromatic flavor or rub between your hands (clean of course!)
and then add to your recipe.
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