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The scoop on herbs.

Emma Stirling
Emma Stirling APD

Do you love culinary herbs as much as we do? Basil, rosemary, parsley, coriander/cilantro, chives and more you’ll find them popping up all over our GI News recipes. They don’t factor directly in GI, but the growing health story has us skipping back down the garden path for more.

Getting to the roots of good health We don’t test herbs for GI – they get a 0 – as the amounts consumed are just too low in carbohydrate counts to affect blood sugar levels. And even though many herbs are high in vitamin C, you’re not going to get anywhere close to your daily needs with say a parsley garnish on a bowl of soup. Unless you’re into eating a bowl of tabouleh every day, an orange just seems a whole lot easier source of vitamin C. But is that the only way to assess the health benefits of herbs?

Nature’s flavour enhancer Nutritionists have often talked up herbs as nature’s flavour enhancers. With pungent aromatics they allow you to dial up the flavour and curb added salt and fat. Like rubbing roasted garlic on meat instead of adding gravy or combining dill and lemon juice on grilled fish, instead of a dollop of tartare sauce. But surely there is more, I hear you ask?

Growing stronger In more recent years the health benefits of culinary herbs have been under closer study. In fact a 2006 supplement to the Medical Journal of Australia titled Health benefits of herbs and spices: the past, present, the future called for culinary herbs to have greater prominence in our government food group recommendations. And the 2008 update to the Oldway’s Mediterranean Diet Pyramid saw the new inclusion of herbs and spices. Why? When you dig a little deeper and look at the phytochemicals in herbs, the grass may turn out to be a little greener. It seems that studies on the antioxidant capacity of culinary herbs show that they may have higher levels than medicinal herbs plus fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, adding phytonutrient rich herbs to other foods, like basil to a tomato salad, may enhance the overall antioxidant capacity of the carrier foods.

Fire up the grill? Everybody loves a barbie, but in more recent times concerns have been raised about the potentially cancer causing compounds that are formed when meat is grilled at high temperatures. However, in one study when meat was rubbed with antioxidant extracts of common herbs like rosemary, basil, oregano and thyme, the levels of harmful compounds known as heterocyclic amines (HA) were reduced. This effect was thought to be due to the powerful antioxidants in herbs soaking up these HA free radicals. So snip those herbs into salads and mix up that marinade, salsa or herb crust when you get set to BBQ. There’s no better place to start than with my Scoop Nutrition recipe for Kitchen Garden Salsa Verde.


Emma Stirling is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and health writer with over ten years experience writing for major publications. She is editor of The Scoop on Nutrition – a blog by expert dietitians. Check it out for hot news bites and a healthy serve of what’s in flavour.