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Any retail dietitian worth her (or his!) salt will tell you that cooking with herbs and spices adds exciting taste while helping to trim fat and sodium.
That’s why the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics encourages everyone to experiment with new combinations of herbs and spices this month to help "Savor the Flavor of Eating Right."
"Today's popular cuisine embraces a wide world of flavors that you can enjoy in all sorts of combinations, while still following a healthful eating pattern," says registered dietitian nutritionist and academy spokesperson Libby Mills.
But herbs and spices do more than flavor foods—they seem to be good for us, too. For instance, a study by the USDA Agricultural Research Service showed that, ounce for ounce, many culinary herbs have more antioxidant power than fruits and vegetables. In particular, three different types of oregano—Mexican, Italian and Greek mountain—scored highest in antioxidant activity. Several other culinary herbs—among them rose geranium, sweet bay, dill, purple amaranth and winter savory—also showed strong antioxidant activity, but only at about one-half to one-third the potency of the oreganos.
It's worthwhile to note the difference between herbs and spices, Mills says. "Herbs, like basil and oregano, grow in temperate climates and are the fragrant leaves of plants. Spices, like cumin and paprika, grow in tropical areas and come from the bark, buds, fruit, roots, seeds and stems of plants and trees."
Innovative use of herbs and spices offers a real flavor advantage, especially if your goal is to cook with less fat and sodium. "While the exact types of herbs and spices depends on the cuisine, every culture has its traditional favorites," Mills says.
Mills offers a top 10 list of popular ethnic cuisines and the flavors associated with them:
- China: Low-sodium soy sauce, rice wine, ginger
- France: Thyme, rosemary, sage, marjoram, lavender, tomato
- Greece: Olive oil, lemon, oregano
- Hungary: Onion, paprika
- India: Curry, cumin, ginger, garlic
- Italy: Tomato, olive oil, garlic, basil, marjoram
- Mexico: Tomato, chili, paprika
- Middle East: Olive oil, lemon, parsley
- Morocco/North Africa: Cinnamon, cumin, coriander, ginger
- West Africa: Tomato, peanut, chili
Mills also recommends keeping a basic assortment of dried herbs and spices on hand for all types of cooking: oregano, garlic powder, thyme, paprika, cinnamon, nutmeg, chili powder, Italian herb seasoning blend, and rosemary.
Help your shoppers preserve their flavorful bounty of dried herbs and spices. The experts at McCormick recommend storing them in a cool, dark place, not next to the stove or on the windowsill where heat and direct sunlight can speed up discoloration and flavor loss. Keep moisture out by properly sealing packaging.
Also check expiration dates and the color of the herbs and spices to ensure freshness. Typically, ground versions maintain their flavor for two years, while whole products retain their flavor for three to four years. It’s time to replace them when the color of ground spices gets lighter, herbs turn to a lighter green or you can’t remember when you bought them.