Whenever we set out to lose excess weight, oftentimes, we will have to give up (or at least cut back) on some of our favourite foods but that doesn't mean we have to cut back on flavour or health benefits.
Enter in nature's bounty of herbs and spices. Both these food flavour enhancers can be traced back as far as prehistoric times and were often used as currency/trade throughout the centuries because of the high demand for them.
Their versatility offers delicious and aromatic variety to all the foods we enjoy.
Although both herbs and spices are types of seasonings and oftentimes used interchangeably, they are two very different types of seasonings. Not only are they different depending on the plant species they originate from, but also the area or segment of the plants.
So, what helps us distinguish a spice from an herb?
Spices originate from the roots, seed, fruit, stem, flower or even bark of a plant or tree while herbs are the leafy, green section of the plant. And, sometimes one plant can be host to both and herb and spice simultaneously. Herbs can be used chopped up or whole in fresh or dried form. Spices are obtained from the crushed portions of plants and tend to offer stronger flavours than herbs.
Not only have these flavour enhancers been used forever to change what would otherwise be the same boring dish to something exotic and exciting but were and are highly valued for their medicinal properties and their ability to help preserve foods that are stored away. In fact, many herbs and spices were used medicinally long before entering the culinary world of food.
Modern science now helps us to understand at a deeper level the powerful medicinal uses that herbs and spices provide us.
Many have important antioxidants (warriors that protect us against free radicals) that help fight inflammation and other health conditions.
Chronic inflammation is not a good thing and results in nearly all chronic Western disease including cancer, heart disease (the world's number one killer) and Alzheimer's.
Herbs and spices to our aid:
A favourite spice in most households these days because of its versatility. It easily shifts from savoury to sweet dishes, from baked to raw with a blink of the eye.
This reddish spice is a potent antioxidant that not only fights inflammation but helps to reduce cholesterol levels as well as triglycerides in the blood.
It is also highly valued for its ability to lower blood sugar levels by raising insulin sensitivity and breaking down carbs in the digestive track.
A medicinal spice that not only flavours but is aromatic and gives dishes such as curry their deep yellow colour. It contains important compounds such as curcumin, a powerful antioxidant related to a vast array of health benefits.
It fights oxidative damage while boosting the body's production of antioxidant enzymes. Oxidative damage is a powerful player behind many diseases and premature aging so it's easy to understand why turmeric is considered by many to be the best nutritional supplement available to us.
It is also a powerful anti-inflammatory that can even match the power of many anti-inflammatory drugs but without side-effects.
Another very common household spice, ginger is a power aide and very successful for treating nausea caused by sea sickness, chemotherapy and even morning sickness. It offers strong anti-inflammatory properties and helps to reduce pain levels.
Spicy dishes often are the result of this type of chilli pepper. The active ingredient, capsaicin is empowered to increase fat burning while reducing appetite – great for those on diets. Although not yet proven on humans, studies done on animals show that this spice also combats certain cancers such as liver, lung and prostate cancer.
Rosemary is a fragrant evergreen herb that is easily grown in any home garden or as a window plant and often used in cooking. It is a member of the mint family providing calcium, iron and vitamin B-6.
It has been used since ancient times to alleviate muscle pain while boosting immunity and digestion, increasing memory and has even been used to promote hair growth.
This is another popular and easily home-grown herb, it is a staple in most worldwide cuisines that brings subtle sweetness and warmth to many dishes.
Rich with antioxidants (empowered to help reduce inflammation), it offers positive medicinal properties including helping alleviate respiratory tract issues, menstrual cramps and urinary tract disorders and has even been shown in studies to help kill cancer cells. It has also proven itself to be an effective anti-bacterial as well.
This popular bright green flowering plant offers a mild but bitter flavour and is considered a powerful disease fighting herb. Known to offer many antioxidants such as vitamin C, carotenoids (beta carotene and lutein) and flavonoids. It is rich in vitamins A and K, needed for blood clotting and bone health.
Although most herbs are valued best when fresh, dried parsley is proving higher in antioxidants when used dried, having as much as 17 times more antioxidant power than fresh parsley.
Outside of medicinal properties, herbs and spices are invaluable in food preparation. Just one snip of a fresh herb is empowered to kick up the flavour and appearance of any dish.
Don't limit yourself to just one, try combining them for even more variety. Delicate fresh herbs should be used towards the end of your cooking or can even sprinkled directly on your dishes before serving for a brighter, more appealing look.
Whether used to boost the flavour, colour or appearance of your favourite recipes or strictly as a health benefit, herbs and spices are truly one of nature's greatest and most abundant gifts.
• Carolyn Hansen is co-owner of Anytime Fitness.