Fresh Herbs for Health

By Patrice Powers-Baker, OSU Extension, Lucas County
The Truth Contributor

Herbs are often offered as a solution to limit salt in the diet. For example, dried herbs can be a good substitute for salt to add flavor to foods without adding extra sodium. The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans states that 90 percent of Americans are consuming too much sodium each day.

Most of the sodium in the US diet is from salt added during commercial food processing. One first step to reducing sodium, whether eating out or making your own meals, is to make sure you taste your food before shaking salt on it.

Although there is nothing wrong with using dried herbs, make sure to check the labels of spice blends to make sure they are herbs and not a salt blend. For example, salt is often the first ingredient (therefore the most common ingredient) listed for lemon pepper. While dried herbs can add flavor to food, it’s a great time to think about adding fresh herbs to your favorite recipes. Not only are fresh herbs accessible at farm markets but they are also easy to grow in a small garden or even containers.

If you have recipes that call for dried herbs, it’s not too hard to substitute with fresh herbs. A general guideline for substituting fresh for dried herbs in a recipe is to use three times as much fresh herbs compared to the dried herbs. The intensity of the flavor of the dried herbs is much stronger. So, if a recipe calls for one teaspoon of dried basil, use three teaspoons of fresh basil.

Fresh herbs will add not only flavor but also additional nutrients. To really add more vitamins and nutrients, think of herbs as an abundant ingredient, and not just a seasoning. If they are only being used for some added flavor or color, in small amounts, they don’t add too many extra nutrients. But if they are being used as a main ingredient in a recipe, they add extra nutrients.

Herbs are plants, like vegetables. We often use the leaves of an herb and sometimes the stems. In some cases, we use different parts of the plant like the leaves for cilantro and seeds for coriander of the same plant. Using fresh herbs in large amounts in a recipe is similar to adding other leafy greens like lettuce, spinach or mustard. Fresh herbs contain vitamins A, C and K. Many herb plants also contain polyphenols. Polyphenols are plant compounds that have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory capabilities.

The following are examples of dishes that use generous amounts of herbs as ingredients:

  • Pesto is a condiment or sauce that traditionally uses sweet basil but can be made with many other leafy herbs or vegetables
  • Tabbouleh and Fattoush are both salads that use a lot of fresh parsley
  • Add a handful of fresh herbs to cooked greens or to fresh lettuce or spinach salad
  • Add a generous handful of chopped, fresh herbs into cold potato and pasta salads or top a hot or cold soup

Culinary herbs to use in recipes are among the easiest edible plants to grow! All plants need soil, water and sunlight. Most herbs do best in well-drained soils with full sun. Herbs do not do well if overfertilized. Many herbs grow well in containers. If you are interested in growing herbs in the garden or windowsill a few things are important to know.

First, is the herb an annual (must be planted each year and will not survive the winter) or a perennial (comes back each spring). If you want to grow perennials you will need a space where they can come up again each year. Some common annual herbs include dill, basil, rosemary, and cilantro. Some common perennial herbs are sage, chives, and oregano. Some herbs, like mint and lemon balm are easy to grow but they can also spread really fast in the ground. They do better in a container so they don’t spread across your yard.

Many annual herbs prefer a little warmer weather and do best after the last frost. On average, the last frost in Northwest Ohio is around the middle of May. Some grow fast by seed like cilantro and others, like basil should be purchased as a plant. It’s a good time of year to find plants at local greenhouses and farmers markets.

Seeds and plants can also be found at large grocery stores. SNAP benefits, used to help buy healthy food can also be used to buy seeds and plants to grow for food. If you have any gardening questions, the OSU Extension has a horticulture hotline every Monday and Wednesday from 10am – 1pm at 419-578-6783.

Information from Ohio State University Extension, Michigan State University Extension, Penn State Extension, Oklahoma State University Extension, and University of Delaware Cooperative Extension.