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Extension Agent: Using herbs and spices for healthier eating

By By Brenda Anderson
June 4, 2013 at 1:04 a.m.


Herbs and spices have a long culinary tradition of providing unique flavors and enhancing existing flavors of foods. Spices have been traded throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East for thousands of years, and even primitive man used some aromatic plants to make foods taste better.

Many people confuse the terms "herb" and "spice." Do you know the difference?

Herbs are the fragrant leaves of low-growing shrubs that grow in temperate climates. Herbs can be used fresh or dried, and dried forms may be whole, crushed or ground. Some common examples of herbs are cilantro, parsley, chives, thyme, basil, dill, oregano, rosemary, sage and celery leaves.

Spices come from the bark, roots, buds, seeds, berries or fruits of tropical plants and trees and are usually dry. Common examples of spices are cinnamon (from bark), garlic (from roots), cloves (from buds), yellow mustard (from seeds), black pepper (from berries) and paprika (from fruits).

Sometimes, a plant may supply both an herb and a spice. For example, the seeds of coriander are used in curry powder, while the leaves of the same plant are cilantro. Keep in mind that these are not interchangeable even though they are from the same plant.

Uses of herbs and spices can also go beyond culinary purposes. Numerous studies indicate that the phytochemicals in herbs and spices may account for their positive effects on health. Phytochemicals are plant chemicals that can have protective or disease preventive properties. For example, onions, tea, cinnamon and rosemary contain flavonoids, phytochemicals, which may promote heart health.

Using more spices and herbs in your food may help to cut back on sugar, salt and fat in recipes. Instead of using breading, batter, gravies or sauces, try adding more seasonings and save yourself 100 calories per tablespoon of fat removed from foods.

To help reduce sodium in recipes, use herbs and spices with savory flavors and a bite, such as black pepper, curry, dill, basil, onion, coriander, garlic powder, cumin and ginger. To replace some of the sugar in your favorite foods, use sweet tasting spices like cinnamon, cloves, allspice, mace and nutmeg instead.

Seasoning blends sold in stores are often mixtures of spices and herbs. Some of these seasoning blends have hidden salt, so look carefully at ingredient lists before purchasing.

To make one half of a cup of a salt-free mixed herb blend that enhances fish, pasta salads and vegetables, mix together 1/4 cup dried parsley, 2 tablespoons dried tarragon, 1 tablespoon dried oregano, 1 tablespoon dried dill weed and 1 tablespoon dried celery flakes.

Store this blend for up to one year in an airtight container away from heat, moisture and light. Look online for more herb and spice blends that can be made with what you already have in your pantry. Happy and healthy cooking.

Brenda Anderson is a Victoria County extension assistant.

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