This trio of fragrant herbs is very popular – not only do they taste great, they also have some amazing health benefits.
Basil, oregano and rosemary belong to the mint family. All these plants are characterised by aromatic leaves and are cultivated across the world. They are firm favourites in many traditional and modern recipes and are quite easy to grow, whether you have a garden or just a plain old windowsill.
There are many varieties of basil, the most common being sweet basil, native to tropical regions. We usually associate basil with Italian cuisine but the herb originates from Africa, Southeast Asia and India and that’s why it is so sensitive to frost and cannot survive outside in cold European winters.
Basil contains several essential oils which are responsible for its characteristic flavour and scent. These oils have a number of health benefits, for example anti-bacterial properties and helping to support your immune system. A few drops of basil essential oil diluted in water can act like a mild disinfectant as a scientific study has shown – washing fresh fruit and vegetables in this solution can significantly reduce infectious bacteria that can be found on fresh produce. It follows that adding fresh basil to your meals, especially those that aren’t cooked, such as salads, offers bonus heath protection.
One of the basil’s essential oil components is anti-inflammatory and can help to support your body’s healing processes. It may also offer mild relief with inflammatory health issues such as rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel conditions. These oils degrade quickly when exposed to high temperatures so it’s best to add basil to your meals near the end of cooking so it retains these precious compounds.
Basil is a great source of beta-carotene, the substance your body converts into vitamin A. It is a powerful anti-oxidant that protects your cells from potential damage caused by metabolic by-products, known as free radicals. A sufficient intake of beta-carotene helps to protect your tissues and is important for healthy vision.
Next on the long list of basil benefits are flavonoids – a type of antioxidants that have been shown to increase your cells’ defences against damage. They are so powerful that they can even make your DNA less vulnerable to radiation.
Basil leaves are an excellent source of vitamin K, essential for healthy blood clotting – particularly important for wound healing. However, high intakes of vitamin K could interfere with blood-thinning drugs, such as warfarin, so if you take those, don’t go basil-crazy.
Oregano is also known as wild marjoram, since the two are related, and it grows widely across Europe. Unlike basil, oregano can be more flavourful when dried rather than fresh. This probably helped its popularity as a must-have herb in pizza sauce and roasted dishes.
Oregano contains several specific essential oils that have anti-bacterial and anti-parasitic properties. Oregano extract has been shown to be more effective against the parasitic microorganism Giardia than a prescription drug! Adding oregano to your dishes helps to protect you against some common bacteria, such as salmonella or listeria, and when it’s added to sauces, it extends their shelf-life.
Just like basil, oregano also packs a vast number of antioxidants and a good amount of vitamin K. The antioxidants protect your tissues from damage and help maintain healthy blood vessels, while vitamin K ensures healthy blood function and helps to maintain bone health.
Rosemary is of a sturdier constitution compared to the basil and oregano – an evergreen shrub that can live up to 30 years!
Its leaves are rich in antioxidants and therefore offer many health-protective properties. Traditionally, rosemary has been used to give indigestion relief, although there’s not enough scientific data to back this up. However, it does have anti-inflammatory effects and promotes good gut bacteria so it’s certainly beneficial for your digestive health.
Modern studies revealed that rosemary may have positive effects on our mental and cognitive health. Regular consumption, such as drinking tea made from rosemary leaves or even inhaling rosemary aroma (from fresh leaves or essential oil), can help to lower anxiety levels, improve sleep quality and boost your memory, mood and ability to concentrate.
Rosemary also has antibacterial properties so adding it to your meals can help protect your health. If you add rosemary to perishable foods, it extends their shelf-life.
Storing and preserving the herbs
When choosing fresh herbs, always pick those that have supple green leaves, without any brown or discoloured spots. It’s best to then wrap them in a slightly damp cloth and keep in the fridge. That way, they will have enough but not too much water, and will be protected from drying out.
If you buy or grow larger quantities, freezing will preserve their nutritional value. Chop them and pack into ice cube trays, covering each portion with vegetable stock. Or use a food processor to coarsely chop the leaves, add a drizzle of virgin olive oil to lightly coat them, divide into ice cube trays and freeze. You can then use these frozen portions for anything from soups, stews, to pasta sauce and baked dishes.
Dried herbs are best kept in tightly sealed glass containers out of direct sunlight. Even though they keep for a long time, they only keep their full flavour for about six months.
All three herbs – basil, oregano and rosemary – have been used in traditional medicine for centuries and have many purported benefits, aside from those described above. While science has not confirmed or even studied some of them yet, it’s clear that the herbs’ essential oils and antioxidants are very potent and beneficial to our health.
This trio of herbs is now widely available to buy as potted plants and easy to grow on your windowsill. Having them in your kitchen will encourage you to add them to a variety of meals, which is a great habit to cultivate!