Increase intake of fresh herbs for everyday health

Many fresh herbs are just as nutritious as leafy greens.

Fresh basil covers half of a dinner plate. | Photo by Sarah Rautio
Fresh basil covers half of a dinner plate. | Photo by Sarah Rautio

When most of us plan to cook with herbs, we often refer to a recipe and the small amounts of dried herbs it calls for (think chili or spaghetti). That is because herbs are typically separated from other plant-based foods (e.g., vegetables) as “food seasonings” rather than just another type of edible plant. Since so many herbs have concentrated flavor in their dried state, categorizing them as seasonings makes sense. However, many herbs are quite mild in their fresh forms and can be eaten in large amounts similar to leafy green vegetables. Since herbs are plants just like vegetables, they are physically, biochemically and nutritionally quite similar to leafy greens such as lettuce, spinach and kale. Yet we typically do not eat fresh herbs in the same ways and quantities as vegetables. Most “soft-stemmed” herbs (parsley, basil, dill), however, can be used in large amounts in salads and on sandwiches. Other fresh herbs (mint, lavender, rosemary) can easily be added in smaller amounts, but more frequently, to drinks and as toppings on snacks and desserts. And, herbs can pack in just as much nutrition as vegetables!

Just like green leafy vegetables, fresh herbs contain large amounts of vitamins A, C and K. Many herb plants also contain polyphenols. Polyphenols are plant compounds that have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory capabilities. Polyphenols are only found in plants and plant-based products, which is why diets rich in plant-based foods can offer “protection against the development of cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis and neurodegenerative diseases,” according to a 2009 study conducted by Pandey and Rizvi. The polyphenols in herbs and other plant-based foods can also reduce chronic inflammation and its associated risk for chronic disease. In addition, science-based research on herbal application in medicine is growing, and future findings may substantiate some of the more specific benefits herbs have on particular ailments. Regardless of those medicinal unknowns, however, increased consumption of food-based herbs can still have over-reaching health benefits similar to other plant-based foods. So add more fresh herbs to your diet!

Unlike American cuisine, many other cultures have utilized large quantities of fresh herbs in their traditional foods, and some of these foods are becoming more popular in the USA. Tabbouleh is a parsley salad that is historically popular in Middle Eastern culture but is now quite common in the USA. Italians and Asians have been eating significant amounts of fresh basil on caprese salads, in pesto, and as a regular condiment to accompany many Asian main dishes. Many US citizens have adopted similar eating patterns. Other fresh herb habits are less familiar to us, such as the Scandinavian tendency to dump handfuls of fresh dill ontop of fish stews such as Finnish Lohikeitto (LOW-hee-gay-doe).

Ideas for eating more herbs on a regular basis:
  • Make salads with herbs as the main ingredient (e.g., Tabbouleh).
  • Substitute 1/2 of the greens in lettuce salads with herbs such as parsley, dill, and basil.
  • Mix handfuls of fresh herbs into cold potato and pasta salads.
  • Top soups with handfuls of fresh herbs.
  • Garnish an entire dinner plate with fresh herbs.
  • Make a sandwich with herbs rather than lettuce (e.g., grilled cheese with basil).
  • Add fresh herbs to drinks (mint lemonades and rosemary ice teas, fresh chamomile in hot tea).
  • Use fresh herb sauces in pasta or on top of cooked meats (pesto in pasta; fresh mint sauce on cooked lamb).
  • Sprinkle lavender, rosemary, and mint leaves on cakes, ice creams, and fruit cocktails.
Additional Michigan State University Extension articles on growing and cooking fresh herbs:

Fresh herb gardening in winter

Growing and using herbs

Start summer off with a sampling of fresh herbs, basil, lavedar and rosemary

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