Herbs and Spices as General Medicinals

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

The idea that herbs and spices have medicinal value is an ancient one, and grounded in fact: plants are virtuosos of biochemical invention, and have been the original source of many important drugs (aspirin, digitalis, quinine, taxol are just a few). The health effects of plant foods in general are discussed above. Herbs and spices, with their specialization in phenolic and terpene compounds, are notable for three broadly helpful tendencies. Phenolic compounds often have antioxidant activity; oregano, bay leaf, dill, rosemary, and turmeric are among the most effective. Antioxidants are useful both in the body, to prevent damage to DNA, cholesterol particles, and other important materials, but also in foods, to slow the deterioration in their flavor. Terpenes don’t prevent oxidation, but they do help reduce the body’s production of DNA-damaging molecules that can cause cancer, and help control the growth of tumors. And some phenolic compounds and terpenes are antiinflammatory agents; they moderate the body’s overreaction to cell damage, which can otherwise contribute to the development of both heart disease and cancer.