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Nutrition and Health

Fresh herbs keep food healthy, tasty

Madigan Army Medical Center

Published: 09:22AM May 17th, 2017

Spring is in full force here in the Pacific Northwest — the perfect chance to test your green thumb. Whether a yearly garden is a tradition for you or you are thinking of picking up a trowel for the first time, an herb garden is a simple and practical way to up your garden game.

Fresh herbs are a great way to add flavor, color and interest to your meals, all without adding extra calories. That’s right — food does not have to be packed with butter and salt to taste great. Herbs are packed with flavor, and adding them to your dishes can help lower your salt intake and make your meals heart healthy without sacrificing the taste. For example, adding fresh basil, oregano, rosemary or mint is an easy way to use little to no salt in your cooking.

You can use herbs to bump up your vitamin and mineral intake as well. In fact, most herbs are good or excellent sources — containing 10 to 19 percent or greater than 20 percent of the recommended daily value, respectively — of vitamins A, C, and K, and minerals like magnesium and copper.

Herbs are also an excellent source of antioxidants and phytochemicals — various tiny compounds found in plants that improve health when consumed. Beta-carotene is a well-known phytochemical that is found in orange plants and improves eye health. There are so many phytochemicals with different beneficial effects, and many can be found in fresh herbs. You do not have to cook with the herbs to get the health benefits. Many can be made into teas or topical applications. For example:

• Peppermint — eases the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, helps with bloating and gas; however, it may worsen acid reflux

• Lemon Balm — speeds the healing of cold sores

• Sage — helps relieve the pain and swelling of sore throats

• Yarrow — stops the bleeding of small cuts; chew leaves and apply to wound

• Ginseng — may decrease fasting blood sugar levels

Most herbs are easy to grow and hard to kill. Herbs grow just about anywhere too. They can be grown indoors in mason jars or small pots or outside in a garden or larger pot. Plants in the mint family — basil, peppermint, lemon balm, rosemary, and thyme to name a few — are especially hearty and can quickly take over your garden or even lawn.

Thus growing in a container such as a mason jar can be a fun indoor or outdoor project. Better yet, get the whole family involved. Studies show that getting children involved with growing their own food can lead to healthier nutrition habits, such as increased fruit and vegetable consumption.

Now that you have so many beautiful herbs, what should you do with them? Sprinkle chopped chives on hard boiled eggs, add chopped cilantro to liven up your salads, or add fresh mint and sliced cucumber to a pitcher of water and get your hydration on.

Whether you are cooking with your herbs for added flavor or using them in teas for medicinal benefit, you should always check with your doctor or registered dietitian before using herbs as they can have interactions with medications. Just because something is natural does not mean it is safe. Once you have the all-clear, enjoy gardening or herb shopping.