Did you know that herbs can play a role in a healthy diet? The Herb Society of America recognizes an herb as plants that are valued for their flavor, fragrance, medicinal and healthful qualities, economic and industrial uses, pesticidal properties, and dyes. Years ago a plant was called an herb if you used its leaves but the definition today includes all plant parts . Thus garlic (a root) and turmeric a rhizome (underground stem) are considered herbs.

Some folks say "Herbs are small doses of medicine" because they contain anti-oxidants, essential oils,vitamins, and phyto-sterols. Many also contain anti-microbial substances. They are a wonderful addition to food because they enhance the taste of the food we eat rather than adding calories.

Should you use fresh or dried herbs? Whenever possible purchase or grow fresh herbs because they have the most health benefits and the best taste. If you have ever dried an herb you know how delicious it smells as it dries but that only means that the herb's essential oils are evaporating!

Let's take a look at some common herbs.

Basil is an herb common to many cuisines and is frequently sold as sprouting plants in supermarkets. It comes in many flavors including licorice, cinnamon, and thai. Basil contains high levels of beta-carotene, vitamin A, lutein, as well as magnesium, copper, and potassium. Basil is easily grown from seed so it is readily available. I like to preserve basil by freezing it on rolled aluminum foil..It keeps all its color and all its taste. Drying basil ruins both its color and taste. Cut basil can be stored in the refrigerator for several days if the freshly cut ends are immersed in water and it is loosely covered.

Garlic fights coronary disease, reduces infections, and is believed to be a cholesterol reducer. Plant your largest cloves in October about six inches deep. Dig when the leaves begin to die down in July. Use garlic in soups, with meats, in stir-fry. Get everyone else to eat it with you so no one will complain of your "fragrance." You can also pickle it or keep it dry in a cool place. Please be careful when making garlic oil. It should be used immediately because it can harbor the bacteria that cause botulism.

Oregano is one of the basic herbs in Greek and Italian cuisines (Mediterranean diets). It is rich in thymol, lutein, zea-zanthin, and anti-oxidants. Oregano is said to increase the motility of your digestive tract (It moves food along the tract.) Since oregano is such a strongly flavored herb it is acceptable to use it dried. When cooking don't use too much! I don't preserve it... I just go outside at any time of the year to harvest it. In the winter it is still green under the snow!

Parsley is a biennial herb taking two years to complete its life cycle. The flat leaf parsley resembles cilantro and has a stronger flavor so it is used in cooking. The curly leaf parsley tastes better fresh. Parsley is the herb with the largest amount of Vitamin K. If you are susceptible to gout or kidney stones be careful because it is high in oxalic acid.

Garden sage is a personal favorite. Sage comes in many forms including clary, garden, variegated, and pineapple. It is a sharply flavored herb which dries well. If you have little success growing it check the pH of your soil ... garden sage likes well drained alkaline soil (the opposite of acidic soil). The essential oil of sage is a disease preventer and contains both folic acid and vitamin A. You can use the leaves to make a tea (actually a tisane) or make stuffing for poultry, fish, or roast pork.

Rosemary contains phytonutrients (plant nutrients), anti-oxidants, essential oils, and is a good source of iron. You can use it fresh or dried. Please use it carefully as too much can ruin a dish. Chives, a component of French fines herbes are easy to grow from seed. They provide lots of fiber and decrease the stiffness of blood vessels when eaten on a regular basis. Use them as a ornament on soups, in cottage cheese. Both the seeds and leaves of dill are used as flavoring. Its oil is antiseptic. Dill contains Vitamins A and C. Buy it fresh because dill powder tastes like dust! Use it in pickles, meats, and on top of sauces. Peppermint, a cross between spearmint and water mint, is excellent for digestion and is delicious in saltines,ice cream, and with lamb.

Ginger root should be silvery gray on the outside and red, yellow, or white on the inside. It is great for flavor, digestion, and diarrhea. It tastes great boiled in water. be careful if you are using Pahlavi or coumadin as it promotes bleeding.

The above herbs are only a few of many which can play an important role in your health. Enjoy!

Forever Young Magazine - January 2013