Herbs for Health

By Suzanne DeJohn

Fresh herbs are tasty -- and healthful too!

Every day, it seems, there's news that this vegetable or that fruit possesses special health-promoting properties. Recently, herbs have taken center stage: Research has shown that many fresh herbs are even higher in disease-fighting antioxidants than powerhouses like blueberries. The study measured the antioxidant activity of 27 culinary herbs and 12 medicinal herbs. As you might expect, the medicinal herbs showed significant levels of antioxidants*. Surprisingly, however, the culinary herbs had even higher levels. Oregano led the pack, with 3 to 20 times more antioxidant content than the other herbs tested; other good sources include dill, thyme, rosemary, and peppermint.

Research also showed that fresh herbs were better than dried herbs with respect to antioxidant levels. So, if the taste of freshly harvested herbs isn't enough incentive to start an herb garden, adding their health benefits should clinch it!

Grow Your Own

Set aside part of your vegetable garden for perennial herbs, such as oregano, thyme, and sage. Just remember not to rototill that area in the spring. Annual herbs are easier to incorporate into an existing garden; just interplant herbs like basil and dill among the vegetables. Not only will you get a harvest of fresh herbs, you'll also benefit from herbs' propensity for attracting beneficial insects.

Many herbs are beautiful and fit right into an ornamental bed. Combine purple sage with orange cosmos, or use low-growing thyme as a ground cover between perennials. Perennial chives are easy to grow, and they readily self-sow. Their spiky leaves provide a nice contrast with broad-leaved perennials such as coral bells. And emerald green curly parsley looks great with everything. (It must be attractive ? it's the universal garnish!)

One caveat: Mint plants can be invasive; prevent them from taking over garden beds by planting them in containers.

Windowsill Herbs

Many herbs can be grown on a windowsill. Root cuttings of perennial herbs like sage and rosemary to bring indoors for the winter, and pot up small divisions of oregano and marjoram. Most annual herbs are best started from seed, including basil and dill. For best results, provide supplemental light for your indoor garden during the short winter days; a fluorescent fixture set so the light is just a few inches above the tops of the plants is ideal. Make successive plantings of annual herbs for winter-long harvest.

In the Kitchen

Let freshly harvested herbs take the place of artificial flavors and excess salt. Experiment with herbs in soups and stews, sprinkle on steamed vegetables, mix into vegetable purees, and add to homemade bread. Combine herbs with richly hued vegetables like sweet potatoes, winter squash, kale, and spinach for a double punch: deeply pigmented vegetables also tend to be high in antioxidants. Some traditional Thanksgiving foods are high in antioxidants, including cranberries and sweet potatoes. Add some fresh herbs and boost their health-promoting characteristics.

Staying Current

It's mind-boggling to try to keep up with all the latest news on health and nutrition. Fortunately, most of the health recommendations follow a pattern: eat a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, and, now, herbs. This is not exactly a hardship, especially for us gardeners. A Web search on the subject of antioxidants yields literally hundreds of sites (many of which are trying to sell you the latest and greatest supplements). It pays to note the source of the information and look at the "fine print." For example, in the study cited above, oregano is said to have four times more antioxidants per gram than blueberries. While that sounds impressive at first, consider just how much fresh oregano you're willing to munch. I'm more inclined to eat the larger amount of blueberries at a sitting!

*Antioxidants are a group of compounds that researchers believe help prevent cancer, heart disease, and stroke. They do this by destroying free radicals, which are charged molecules generated by a variety of sources, including smoking and exposure to pesticides. The results of the study were published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, November, 2001.

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