They’re the essential magic ingredients of any sumptuous Italian tomato sauce, zesty Thai stir fry or aromatic Indian curry. Herbs and spices bring bright, natural flavours and scents into your food – and they’re full of potent nutritional benefits.
If you’re not used to cooking with herbs and spices, it can feel like a fancy, complicated thing. The truth is, it’s incredibly easy to start playing around.
All you need is a little garlic, basil and parsley, and a simple meal of grilled fish and brown rice becomes a rich and satisfying feast. Vegetables roasted up with rosemary, thyme and oregano are suddenly lusciously flavoursome. Dust cinnamon and nutmeg over a healthy breakfast of oats, fruit and yoghurt, and your sweet tooth will be tingling.
“Herbs and spices have been a long part of our history but most of us don’t use them anywhere near enough,” says Jane Freeman, Accredited Practising Dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia.
“Not only do they give us lots of aromas, flavours and textures, but they’re concentrated sources of what I call power plants – antioxidants and phytochemicals, which do a lot to protect and repair our cells and reduce inflammation in the body."
Inflammation is the body's coping mechanism against things that could damage it, and it puts stress on our cells. "Our cells are constantly repairing and dividing, and the inflammatory process can impact on that healthy cell maintenance," Jane says.
“Anti-inflammatory nutrients are on our side, trying to help keep our cells healthy and doing what they’re supposed to in the body.”
A natural alternative
Possibly the biggest health benefit of using herbs and spices is what they replace. When you flavour your food naturally, you’re likely to use less salt and sugar and fewer packaged sauces and condiments. It’s an easy way to make everything taste fresher, lighter and healthier.
“With all the lovely flavours and aromas that things like garlic and basil and coriander give you, they’re a great alternative to adding salt to our food,” Jane says. “Australians on average eat about 10 g of salt a day, which is far above the ideal of no more than 4-5 g a day.”
Packaged sauces, curry pastes and condiments are convenient and can certainly have a place in your diet, but many are quite high in sugar and salt. Many of us don’t even realise how much sugar and salt we’re consuming each day, because so much of it comes hidden in packaged foods.
If you usually buy lots of bottled sauces, making your own with herbs and spices can also save you money. Once you get your spice collection going, it doesn’t cost much to keep it replenished. A $2 packet of chilli flakes or ground cinnamon will probably last you a couple of months – a little sprinkling goes a long way.