Kale, spinach, and broccoli are not the only greens you should have on your grocery list. There’s an entire world of healthy herbs out there for you to try. Herbs will not only make your food more delicious and exciting to eat, but they can also do a lot to keep you well, too.
“We should think of herbs as being vegetables and therefore providing a virtually calorie-free source of nutrients and important phytonutrients to promote better health,” says Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RDN, the author of The SuperfoodsRx Diet.
Long before modern medicine, the ancient civilizations leaned heavily on a variety of herbs for their healing properties. While there is very little scientific evidence that any single herb can directly prevent or cure serious diseases, research increasingly shows that many of the most common options in grocery stores do possess properties that may help lower the risk of developing certain maladies or lessen certain symptoms.
Adding herbs to your diet has another benefit: “Adding flavor with herbs can make it easier to eat more of the foods we need more of, including vegetables and whole grains, because they make everything taste and smell better,” Dr. Bazilian says. She also believes this added flavor makes it easier to cut back on less-desirable ingredients such as sugars, salt, and saturated fats. A study in the December 2019 issue of Nutrients found that up to half the salt in a vegetarian dish could be slashed when herbs and spices were added, without affecting the perceived taste.
When it comes to culinary herbs, you have loads of choices, depending on your flavor preferences and what dishes you want to add them to.
Healthy Herbs to Must Add to Your Diet
Here’s the science behind why these seven options are so good for you, and tips for how to get your fill.
If Italy or Greece had a quintessential flavor, pungent and woodsy oregano would be a top contender. These tiny but mighty leaves from the mint (Lamiaceae) family boast huge amounts of antioxidants. An analysis by food scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that oregano can have 3 to 20 times higher antioxidant activity than any of the other 38 herbs tested. In fact, the investigators said that, gram for gram, the herb has 42 times more antioxidant activity than apples and four times more than blueberries, one of the biggest antioxidant powerhouses around. Rosmarinic acid was discovered to be a primary antioxidant in oregano.
“These antioxidants can inhibit the chemical reactions in the body that produce free radicals that damage cells and eventually lead to diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes,” says Sharon Palmer, RD, a registered dietitian in Ojai, California, and the founder of the Plant-Powered Dietitian. It’s worth noting that dill, garden thyme, rosemary, and peppermint were also tested for sky-high antioxidant numbers. The oils naturally present in oregano have been studied for their antimicrobial properties as well. In other words, they inhibit the growth of unwanted bacteria, including Escherichia coli, research, such as a study in the July 2020 issue of Polymers, has found.
How to enjoy it You’re probably accustomed dried oregano, but for more robust flavor, try reaching for the fresh leaves. Oregano can punch up more than just pizza: chili, marinades, marinara sauce, omelets, and salad dressings also benefit from its addition. To temper its strong flavor, add oregano leaves to dishes during the last few minutes of cooking.
Peppermint (Mentha piperita) originally hails from the European continent, but now the easy-growing herb is cultivated all over the world — there are several varieties of mint, but peppermint and spearmint are the most common. You’re likely well aware of how often mint is used to add flavor or fragrance to soaps, cosmetics, toothpaste, mouthwashes, and other products, but there are reasons to freshen up your diet with these leaves, too.
The common herb contains a handful of flavonoid antioxidant compounds, primarily eriocitrin, luteolin, and hesperidin, according to a review of peppermint’s potential benefits published in Phytotherapy Research. “These flavonoid compounds exert a range of functions, two most notably are anti-inflammatory and antioxidant tasks,” Bazilian says. “They help our cellular processes, metabolic transfer of nutrients and elimination of toxic by-products.”
Having a lousy day? Consider brewing up a pot of peppermint tea. Some preliminary research including an investigation in the International Journal of Neuroscience suggests the minty aroma may help improve mood and sharpen fuzzy thinking.
Although the main chemical component of peppermint is menthol, which research has found has a relaxation effect on gastrointestinal tissue, studies about peppermint’s ability to soothe stomach ailments has been mixed. A randomized double-blind study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology in 2021 found that peppermint oil was not more effective at relieving stomach woes, including abdominal bloating, than a placebo. But because both seemed to help, the study authors suggest further research is needed. A separate study published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine in January 2021 found that the scent of peppermint oil can noticeably reduce the frequency of nausea and vomiting in people undergoing chemotherapy. It may also have the same benefit for pregnant women, according to a systematic review in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in January 2020.
How to enjoy it Peppermint leaves can be added to tea, or add fresh notes to vegetable and fruit salads, sauces, grain bowls, and smoothies.
This summertime staple may be good for your eyes. It’s a source of both lutein and zeaxanthin, according to a nutrition analysis by the USDA. High dietary levels of these compounds have been shown to reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration, the biggest reason for vision loss as we age. “These compounds are deposited in the macular region of the retina of the eye and appear to protect our eyes against damaging light, as well as having direct antioxidant effects,” notes Palmer.
Higher intakes of carotenoid antioxidants including lutein and zeaxanthin were also found to be associated with improved cognitive function in women, per a Journal of Nutrition study published in July 2020. Basil also supplies high amounts of vitamin K and lesser amounts of vitamin C, beta-carotene, and manganese.
How to enjoy it Basil is known as the key ingredient in Italian classics including pesto, pizza, and caprese salad, but its sweet flavor works very well in a range of dishes and even cocktails. Try pairing it with summer staples such as tomatoes, peaches, and grilled meats.
This Mediterranean green is so much more than a garnish. A ¼ cup serving is an excellent source of vitamin K, supplying more than two times what you need in a day, per the USDA. And that makes parsley a good bet for boosting heart health. A study in the Journal of the American Heart Association in August 2021 based on data from more than 50,000 individuals discovered that people who ate more vitamin K–rich foods had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease related to atherosclerosis.
“Vitamin K also helps the body make the proteins needed for blood clotting, which stops wounds from bleeding excessively, and promotes improved bone density to reduce the chances for osteoporosis,” says Palmer. Other nutritional perks of this herb include high amounts of vitamin C and beta-carotene, which is used to make vitamin A, according to the National Institutes of Health. Parsley and cilantro look very similar, so when you are shopping for the former make sure you opt for the slightly stiffer greens with pointier leaves.
How to enjoy it With a mildly bitter, fresh, peppery taste, parsley is a great all-rounder in the kitchen. Chop a handful or two and sprinkle over soups, salads, roasted potatoes and pasta dishes. Or make a tabbouleh salad!
A member of the mint family, rosemary is prized both for its flavor and its stand-out fragrance, and it’s easy to grow indoors, which makes it ideal for small-space city dwellers. Its needle-like leaves deserve praise for their potential antioxidant powers. A preliminary study by Canadian scientists determined that rosemary contains polyphenol antioxidants that may help slow the spread of cancerous cells and, in turn, tumor growth, although more research is needed. Another review, in Nutrients, suggested that polyphenols in rosemary, including rosmarinic acid, have anticancer efficacy, but that research was also preliminary, and additional study is needed.
That same antioxidant potency may be the reason one Kansas State University study found that marinating beef in a mixture made with rosemary before grilling it helped prevent the formation of carcinogenic heterocyclic amine compounds in the meat by as much as 84 percent.
Even sniffing it may be good for us. A study in Therapeutic Advances in Psycho pharmacology found that people who got a whiff of rosemary performed better on certain cognitive tasks, including tests of memory, compared with those who didn’t. Researchers surmise that one of its compounds, called 1,8-cineole, may boost brain activity.
How to enjoy it In addition to marinating grilled meats, this herb can be used to add piney flavor to everything from roasted root vegetables to stews and frittatas.
Sage’s Latin name is Salvia, from salvus, meaning “healthy.” Long prized for its medicinal value, sage (Salvia officinalis) is native to the Mediterranean region and research indicates it may improve brain function and memory, potentially by enhancing signaling pathways in the brain, as in an International Journal of Molecular Sciences report published in July 2021.
Certain compounds in sage have also been found to have strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, as in a study published in Antioxidants in February 2021, which may help combat certain maladies like cancer. But much more research on this link is necessary.
Sage may also reduce the severity and incidences of hot flashes in menopausal women, according to one past study.
How to enjoy it One of the most popular uses for sage is in the stuffing for a holiday turkey, but its distinctive, strong herbal flavor is worth incorporating into other dishes year-round. These include meat marinades, breads, bean-based dishes, stews, tomato sauces, and mashed sweet potato. Cooking mellows sage, so for the fullest flavor, add it at the end of the cooking process. If you prefer just a hint of sage flavor in your dish, add it at the beginning. Remember that sage can easily overpower a dish.
Cilantro is the Spanish word for the leaves of the coriander plant. It can be quite a divisive herb, since people either love it or loathe it. For some, it has a wonderful citrusy and peppery flavor and aroma, while to others it tastes like soap. Bazilian explains that a genetic variant may make some people highly sensitive to the smell of aldehyde compounds in cilantro, which affects how it tastes to them.
According to an analysis from the USDA, cilantro, like parsley, is a good source of vitamin K. A multiethnic study in the May 2020 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition involving nearly 4,000 Americans found that adults with low blood levels of vitamin K were 19 percent more likely to die within 13 years than those with adequate levels, suggesting vitamin K may offer protective health benefits as we age.
Cilantro offers important phytochemical antioxidants including polyphenols that may help improve cardiovascular health and limit premature aging, according to a review published in a 2022 issue of Molecules. The researchers caution that much more study in humans should take place to assess the impact of cilantro’s antioxidant compounds on our health.
How to enjoy it Cilantro is often used in Mexican and Asian cuisine, and a generous sprinkle of this tender herb can be a wonderful finishing touch for salads, curries, soups, beans, tacos, grilled corn, burrito bowls, dips like guacamole, and stir-fries. Always consider blending it into herby sauces such as chimichurri.