The Antioxidant Herbs - Used for Millennia to Add Flavor to Our Foods, Culinary Herbs Are Also Natural and Abundant Sources of Healing Chemicals
forristal, linda joyce, The World and I
They're robust, tangy, and pungent. They're perfect for soups and stews, accents on pizza and in cheese dips and even desserts. And now we learn they are good for us, too. What a bonus! U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists recently carried out a scientific study on twenty-seven culinary and twelve medicinal herbs. The study revealed that many popular herbs are a great natural source of natural antioxidants, compounds that play an important role in neutralizing free radicals. In fact, the total phenolic contents of many herbs in the study were higher than those reported for berries, fruits, and vegetables. Although we might have to eat more herbs to get the equivalent total amount of antioxidants consumed in fruits and vegetables, supplementing an otherwise balanced diet with herbs may be beneficial to our health.
Some of your favorite herbs might be on this list. In decreasing order of antioxidant activity, they include several oreganos and their cousin hardy sweet marjoram, rose geranium, sweet bay, dill, thyme, rosemary, and sage. The culinary herbs with the highest antioxidant activities are the oreganos, which belong in the mint family (Lamiaceae). In fact, this study showed that their extremely high phenolic content and oxygen radical absorbance capacity (or ORAC) make their total antioxidant activities higher than _-tocopherol (found in vitamin E).
Though there is some taxonomic confusion about oreganos, by far the most widely available variety is Origanum vulgare spp. hirtum, or Greek mountain oregano. This is the European oregano of commerce, what the Greeks call rhigani. Greek mountain oregano, with an ORAC of 64.71, is known for its pepper-flavored leaves that add a magnificent punch to pizza, spaghetti sauce, and classic Greek cuisine like dolmas-- flavorful tidbits of meat, rice, and spices rolled up in grape leaves. It is an asset, in fact, a staple, in any proper garden. Since it is a woody perennial, it will overwinter in many climates. My Greek mountain oregano has its own revered planter in my backyard and provides me the security of knowing I'm getting the real thing. (I won't dwell on how I first planted an ornamental oregano and wondered why it didn't have the wonderful aroma I'd heard about!)
It is their aroma that sets the oreganos apart. In fact, several herbal sources and experts recommend that it's better to view oregano as a class instead of any one species as a flavor. Indeed, the main commonality, the one thing that makes any plant an oregano, is the flavor and scent that come from the essential oil carvacrol, a simple phenol they contain in varying amounts. What capsaicin is to peppers, carvacrol is to oregano; it imparts the savory, pungent, warming sensation to the tongue. Carvacrol is not specific to oreganos and can also be found in monarda and sweet marjoram. In addition to carvacrol, high levels of rosmarinic acid contribute to the oreganos' antioxidant capacities.
Origanum x majoricum, commonly known as both hardy sweet marjoram and Italian oregano, has a slightly higher antioxidant activity than Greek mountain oregano (with an ORAC of 71.64). The x between the two scientific names indicates that it's a cross between Origanum vulgare and Origanum majorana, or sweet marjoram. Because it's a cross, Italian oregano tastes sweet and savory at the same time and is thus a versatile herb that can be used to season meats, eggs, soups, and vegetables.
European bay (ORAC 31.70) is the leaf of the tree Laurus nobilis and is in the same family of plants as cinnamon, cassia, sassafras, and avocado. (Just for the record, California bay is a different, more pungent species.) Run your finger down the stem of the leaf to release the odor--a mixture of balsam, vanilla, nutmeg, and a touch of citrus. Susan Belsinger, a nationally known herb specialist, uses bay in desserts, flavoring herbed syrups or puddings and custards. …