What is an herb exactly? It’s surprisingly tough to lay down specific guidelines – but my favorite response to that question so far is from the legend of Charlemagne. When posed that same question by his teacher, Charlemagne replied that an herb is “the friend of physicians and the praise of cooks.” It’s true that herbs are primarily used to add flavor, but in addition, they are valued for their medicinal qualities as teas, salves, supplements and aromatherapies. Even many Western pharmaceutical drugs stem from plant-extract origins. But what has sparked my interest is the use of culinary herbs in line with the “food as medicine” belief. From basil to parsley, oregano to marjoram, these wonderful, common culinary staples not only enhance and add additional flavor to favorite foods, but they are very nourishing in a medicinal sort of way too. These beneficial health effects of everyday culinary herbs are a result of their volatile or essential oils, flavonoids, and other secondary metabolites.
Culinary herbs have attracted my attention over the past three years. In this time, I have worked at a variety of farms and gardens—from a small medicinal herb garden in Iowa, to Alice Waters’ primary culinary herb source since the 1970s (Cannard Farm in Sonoma, CA), and most recently, Troy Community Farm here in Madison. These farms operate upon different models and market to different populations, but they all grow the same herbs, and the same herbs are universally in demand. Culinary herbs have always been in popular view but seem to be gaining additional momentum lately with more people pursuing a plant-based, whole-foods diet. In addition, using more culinary herbs in cooking can increase flavor and replace the need for additional salt or fats.
Parsley is a great example since it is often overlooked as just a garnish. Parsley is full of secondary metabolites (more detail on these to come). Myristicin is a compound in parsley that has shown to inhibit tumor growth and can also neutralize known carcinogens in cigarette smoke. Luteolin, a secondary metabolite, acts as an anti-oxidant and serves as an anti-inflammatory with the aid of Vitamin C, of which parsley contains about 18% of your daily recommended value (DRV) in two tablespoons! It has also been shown to neutralize harmful amino acids when they reach unhealthily high levels, reducing the threat of cardiovascular diseases. Parsley also contains about 150% DRV of Vitamin K in that same two tablespoons which is a fat-soluble vitamin that strengthens bones and is essential in the operation of our nervous systems. So, lesson learned—next time eat the garnish too.
As we enter the growing season it’s important to realize that not all herbs are created equal. A more nutrient-dense herb is the result of it being grown in nutrient-dense soils. Only in well-nourished soils can plants produce both primary and secondary metabolites. Primary metabolites are things like carbohydrates, fats and proteins that plants use to build their structure. If there is enough nutrition available in the soil after creating primary metabolites, the plant will then go into making additional mechanisms called secondary metabolites. These are important in a healthy plant because unlike you and me, plants cannot go and get water when they’re thirsty or run away from a bug if it bites them. They’re stuck in the ground. So they have developed their own way to attract the things they need but can’t get and defend themselves from things they can’t run away from. For example, some of these secondary metabolites are developed to increase attraction to pollinators by making fragrances or attractive colors. Others are developed as defense mechanisms against the sun’s radiation (like plant sunscreen), or even to protect against a target insect (whom the plant can identify based on the insect’s unique saliva chemical-markers it leaves behind when it bites them)! They’re even used as a way to communicate chemically to other plants, or to insects (both friends and foes), as well as microbes in the root zone.
Besides being fascinating, secondary metabolites are also really healthy for people when we eat them! Envision lots of deep colors and rich flavors—that’s those secondary metabolites. The most-studied secondary metabolites are called terpenoids or volatile oils, commonly known as essential oils, which coincidentally, are found in high and unique concentrations in classic culinary herbs. Secondary metabolites have been shown in studies to stimulate the immune system, extend vitamin and mineral activities, act as antioxidants, protect LDL cholesterol from oxidation, and act as anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor agents, just to name a few perks. So, besides bringing culinary pleasure to your tastebuds this season, fresh herbs can offer nourishment and subtle, yet important, health benefits when grown conscientiously.
Herbs as medicine
A few common herbs that especially deserve a double-take, based on their food-as-medicine potentials, that we carry here at the Co-op include the previously profiled parsley, basil, oregano, marjoram, rosemary, sage, mint, thyme, dandelion greens, garlic, tarragon and dill.
During our local growing season we are very happy to be able to offer fresh, packaged herbs from local Troy Community Farm. Troy is a five-acre, certified organic farm located within the city of Madison. Claire Strader, head farmer, hopes to have herbs available through the Co-op as soon as early April from their passive solar greenhouse and offers hardy herbs such as sage, mint, thyme, rosemary, oregano and chives up through Thanksgiving. Troy’s herbs are grown in much cared for soil with regular compost amending at planting time, lots of cover-cropping throughout the entire year, as well as organized crop-rotations and fed additional carbon matter like mulches.
Until the local growing season
Until we enter our official local growing season, we continue to offer fresh, packaged herbs from a trusted distributor of organic produce who reported that their growers do not use any type of irradiation, ozone, sulfites, gasses, sprays or any type of other preservatives in their culinary herb production.
It’s important to keep herbs fresh to maintain their flavor and nutritional quality! This can be done by treating them like a bouquet of flowers in a cup of clean water in the fridge—the exception being basil. Basil does best stored at room temperature. Treated this way fresh herbs can be kept fresh up to ten days.