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Special Reports June 2017 Issue

Maximizing Flavor with Herbs and Spices

You can transform food from dull to delicious with these healthful seasonings - while reducing how much salt you use in cooking your favorite dishes.

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Herbs and spices are a real win-win when it comes to eating healthier while enjoying what you eat. Studies show taste is ultimately the key factor driving our typical food choices. So, making healthful foods taste great is important. Herbs and spices can help you reduce the amount of salt you add to dishes while making nutritious foods like vegetables, whole grains and fish more flavorful.

Currently, 33% of adults in the US have hypertension (high blood pressure), which is a significant risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Reducing salt (sodium) intake is an important way to decrease risk of hypertension. Curbing your salt tooth also can help lower blood pressure if you already have prehypertension (borderline high blood pressure) or hypertension.

Processed, packaged foods and restaurant foods are the biggest sources of sodium in our diets, so limiting those is important. Knowing how to flavor foods with herbs and spices could help you enjoy home cooking more. "People have become very accustomed to the taste of salt," says Nicola McKeown, PhD, an associate professor at Tufts’ Friedman School. "Introducing herbs and spices while gradually cutting back on salt may make it easier to reduce sodium in your diet." If you've been uncertain how to use herbs and spices, it’s never too late to learn.

Herbs Versus Spices:

Although it's common to consider herbs and spices as a single category of seasonings, they are a bit different. Herbs are from the leafy part of plants with non-woody stems, like parsley, rosemary, thyme, dill, basil, mint and oregano. Such herbs may be sold fresh or dried and are typically used in larger amounts than spices.

Spices are more commonly sold dried, either whole or ground, and tend to have a stronger flavor than herbs. Spices are from various parts of either woody or non-woody plants, as in these examples:

- Root-like stems (rhizomes): ginger, turmeric

- Flower buds: capers, cloves

- Flower stigmas: saffron

- Fruits (berries): peppercorns, allspice

- Seeds: cardamom, cumin

- Bark: cinnamon

In addition to these common herbs and spices, there also are plants that may be thought of as vegetables but are often used for seasoning. Garlic, onions, celery and chili peppers are a few examples. Regardless of their classification, all of these are great options for flavoring foods.

Flavor Enhancers:

Although sprinkling on salt is an easy way to boost the flavor of many dishes, herbs and spices can be just as effective (if not more so). In one experiment, described in the journal Appetite, when adults were given a reduced-sodium (about 45% less salt) tomato soup seasoned with a mixture of herbs and spices, they perceived it to be similar in saltiness to the regular version of the soup higher in sodium. The people didn't instantly like the lower-salt, herb-seasoned soup as much as the salty version, but they grew to like it more over a short period of time. So, be patient as your taste buds adapt.

Some of the real magic with herbs and spices happens when you use them to make a healthy food like broccoli so tasty that you eat more of it. That's what was found in a preliminary study from the University of California in Los Angeles. Scientists asked twenty overweight men and women who typically ate less than three daily servings of vegetables to do a series of taste tests with vegetables, without disclosing how they were seasoned.

When the people were given cooked broccoli seasoned with an herb/spice mixture (garlic, onion, pepper and basil, along with extra-virgin olive oil and a bit of salt), they ate significantly more broccoli compared to when it was only flavored with olive oil and salt. In fact, high-restraint eaters (those who restrict food intake to control weight) consumed 91% more broccoli when it was seasoned with the herb/spice mix. The study was recently published in the journal Food and Nutrition Sciences.

Fresh To Dried Herbs

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The following amounts of herbs in different forms are generally equivalent to each other:

- ¼ to ½ teaspoon ground, dried herbs

- 1 teaspoon crumbled, dried herbs

- 1 tablespoon finely cut, fresh herbs

Note: 1 tablespoon = 3 teaspoons

Next: Page 2: Health Impact and Expanding Your Spice Cabinet

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