Dietitians Dish: Smart cooking with herbs, spices

By Stephanie Markman
June 19, 2012 at 1:19 a.m.

Stephanie Markman

Stephanie Markman

We have all heard that a low-sodium diet is the best for your health, but that is often less important to people than the flavor and enjoyment of their food. Fortunately, there can be a happy medium. Try using herbs and spices instead of salt. Herbs and spices are sodium-free and have plenty of health benefits including antioxidants, which are a cancer preventing compound.

To help you start focusing on herbs and spices and getting rid of that salt, here is a list of common herbs and spices, foods that pair well with and some of their health benefits. (Adapted from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Today's Dietitian) • Rosemary: A very versatile herb with meats and vegetables, which can actually help reduce cancer causing compounds found on grilled meats.

Mint: Great in tea or with corn and watermelon. To preserve fresh mint, you can cut the ends and keep in a glass of water. Mint has antimicrobial and antiviral effects and can help relax your gastrointestinal tract and aid in pain relief. • Basil: A crowd favorite, but be sure to add this in at the end of your cooking or will lose its wonderful flavor. Basil has been associated with lowering cholesterol levels and is a good source of antioxidants.

• Oregano: One of the most concentrated sources of antioxidants, one half of a teaspoon of oregano has the same amount of antioxidants as three cups of spinach. Oregano is also an antimicrobial against salmonella, E. coli and staph.

• Thyme: A good pair for fish and vegetables and rich in antioxidants.

• Cilantro: Best fresh with your salsas and guacamole.

Beebalm/bergamot: Becoming the new "it" herb, the flavor is a good mix of oregano and mint and can be substituted for either. If you leave the leaves on the stem, you can steep and make a nice cup of tea. • Lavender: Because of its floral and slightly sweet aroma, a little goes a long way, often goes well with custards, salads, flan and sorbets.

Lemon verbena: Can be replacement for lemon zest or steeped with mint and poured over ice for a refreshing summer iced tea. • Nutmeg: Has been found to have antidepressant properties and is a bactericidal against H pylori and E coli.

Cinnamon: Associated with decreasing blood glucose levels in those with uncontrolled Type 2 Diabetes. • Hot pepper: May help prevent cancer and has pain reducing properties.

• Garlic: Found to help prevent cancer, reduce cholesterol and has anti-clotting factors.

• Ginger: May be helpful to relieve nausea and vomiting, especially in pregnant women. Also associated with cancer prevention due to being rich in antioxidants and acts as an anti-inflammatory agent.

To maintain the life of your herbs and spices, store them in a cool, 68 degrees is ideal, dark place in an air-tight container. Leafy herbs will last up to three years, while powdered or ground will last anywhere from six months to three years.

Another rule of thumb is that if you can still smell the herb or spice, it is still good to use. Herbs and spices will not spoil, but will only lose their potency over time. You can crush older herbs and spices in your hand before using to expose more of the flavor in your cooking.

If you have fresh herbs that you would like to dry yourself, start by washing and drying the leaves. You can either dry them in the microwave by zapping them between two paper towels on low for two to three minutes or dry them in the oven by placing them on a baking sheet at 100 degrees for several hours with the door open. Just be sure to remove the herbs from the oven before they turn brown.

Be careful when shopping for herb and spice blends at the grocery store, they may not all be sodium-free. Just take a look at the ingredients to ensure you won't be seasoning with salt without knowing it. So, enjoy the summer, abundant with herbs and spices. Just don't forget to water them.

Stephanie Markman is a registered and licensed dietitian. Send questions or comments to



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