1 March 2009

Food of the Month with Catherine Saxelby

Culinary spices and herbs – a surprising source of antioxidants

Catherine Saxelby

Culinary spices and dried herbs are the latest ingredients to move into the nutrition spotlight. They are surprisingly rich in antioxidants and phyto-chemicals and are packed with vitamins and minerals. With their hit of flavour they can help you cut back on excess salt or sugar in your cooking so are proving a winner with dietitians and nutritionists. Try this for yourself:

  • Next time you cook a curry or laksa, don’t add any salt. Use LOTS of chilli, turmeric, cumin seeds and ginger and I bet your taste buds will be so mesmerised by the burst of flavour, you won’t notice the lack of salt.
  • Another example: cook some cinnamon-infused pears in syrup with only half the usual sugar. Be generous with the cinnamon cassia. The aroma is enough to overcome that drop in sugar. You won’t miss it.
ORAC antioxidant ranking In terms of antioxidants, spices and dried herbs are always at the top despite the differences in testing methods. For instance, when you look at the ORAC lab test, you’ll see foods like cinnamon, cloves, pomegranate juice, blueberries, cranberries, oregano, chilli and turmeric listed as star performers. Dried herbs score higher than fresh for antioxidants as drying removes water and so concentrates the remaining leaves.


ORAC (PDF) stands for Oxygen Reducing Capacity and was developed by USDA and Tufts University. It is a well-recognised way to rank foods by their ‘antioxidant strength’.

Seven super spices and dried herbs: The McCormick Science Institute (an independent research centre funded by McCormick and based in the US) has identified seven ‘super spices’ chosen due to their extremely high antioxidant score (based on ORAC) and the bank of other published scientific research behind them. In addition, these seven are the easiest to consume in higher quantities than usual which is important if you want to get a clinical benefit. They are:
  • Cinnamon cassia – helps stabilise blood sugar after a meal
  • Oregano – anti-bacterial with one of the highest antioxidant counts
  • Turmeric – adds vivid yellow colour due to curcumin component; may delay dementia;
  • Ginger – fights nausea; anti-inflammatory
  • Thyme – traditional cough remedy, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory
  • Paprika – similar properties to chilli; rich in beta-carotene
  • Rosemary – one of the Big Three Mediterranean herbs and may help slow ageing
How much to use? Here’s the big barrier with culinary spices. We only use a pinch here, a sprinkle there. According to the McCormick Spice Institute, we probably need to be taking in 1/2 teaspoon per serving of a spice (or a combination of spices and herbs) to gain a health benefit and they are carrying out ongoing research in this area.

As an example, a recipe for home-made beef burgers can take 3 teaspoons of dried oregano leaves and 3 teaspoons of dried thyme leaves with the 500 g mince, along with the usual onion, tomato sauces, eggs, breadcrumbs and grated carrot. And importantly no added salt. This quantity makes 12 burger patties and tastes delicious. No suffering here.

Catherine Saxelby is an accredited dietitian and nutritionist and runs the Foodwatch Nutrition Centre. For more information on spices and herbs and healthy eating, visit www.foodwatch.com.au.


Tuck into the benefits of culinary spices and herbs
Dip into spice guru Ian ‘Herbie’ Hemphill’s books and discover the world of culinary spices and herbs and how you can include more of them in your meals.