Herbs and spices have been used for culinary and medicinal purposes since the beginning of time. Their nutritional benefits are outstanding and enhance foods in so many different ways that people are still figuring out new mixes and blends.

Truth is, most people couldn't imagine food without the flavor that herbs and spices provide. Yet, at the same time, I wonder just how many of us truly appreciate the life-giving properties within each and every one.

Herb and spice 101

Before we dive into some of their medicinal benefits, there are some things that you should know about herbs and spices first. To start off with, although we commonly use the terms interchangeably, herbs are not spices and spices are not herbs; even though the same plant can produce both. Confusing? Sort of, so let’s have Foy Spicer from the Iowa State University Department of Horticulture explain it for us:

  • Herbs are obtained from the leaves of herbaceous (non-woody) plants. They are used for savory purposes in cooking and some have medicinal value. Herbs often are used in larger amounts than spices. Herbs originated from temperate climates such as Italy, France, and England. Herb also is a word used to define any herbaceous plant that dies down at the end of the growing season and may not refer to its culinary value at all.
  • Spices are obtained from roots, flowers, fruits, seeds or bark. Spices are native to warm tropical climates and can be woody or herbaceous plants. Spices often are more potent and stronger flavored than herbs; as a result, they typically are used in smaller amounts. Some spices are used not only to add taste but also as a preservative.
  • Some plants are both herbs and spices. The leaves of Coriandrum sativum are the source of cilantro (herb) while coriander (spice) is from the plant's seeds. Dill is another example. The seeds are a spice while dill weed is an herb derived from the plant's stems and leaves.

Make more sense? A list of herbs that you’re probably familiar with include:

  • Basil
  • Chives
  • Marjoram
  • Mint
  • Oregano
  • Parsley
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Thyme

Likewise, here are some of the more commonly used spices:

  • Cinnamon (bark)
  • Cloves (flower bud)
  • Cumin (seed)
  • Ginger (root)
  • Nutmeg (seed)
  • Saffron (stigma, female reproductive part of saffron crocus)
  • Vanilla (undeveloped fruit of an orchid)

Hopefully, this clears up any confusion and next time a friend or family member uses “herb” and “spice” interchangeably or incorrectly, you’ll be able to set them straight.

Healthiest herbs and spices

So, if you only had space for 5 herbs and spices in your pantry, which ones should you keep in stock? That’s a tough one, but after some careful research, these 5 stood out among the rest:

  1. Basil

    Extremely rich in Vitamin K and manganese, basil is an Italian staple with over a 100 varieties to choose from. The flavonoids in basil are known to protect our DNA from mutagenesis, to contain some potent anti-bacterial properties and are essential for heart health. (1)

  1. Curry

    Popular in Indian dishes, the best part of curry is that you benefit from a wide selection of key spices every time you use it. Traditionally, curry is made by mixing together a variety of spices including caraway, cardamom, chili pepper, cumin, fenugreek, garlic, mustard seed, and turmeric. All of these ingredients pack a powerful immunity boost, but the key to this blend is turmeric.

Arguably the most frequently mentioned medicinal compound in all of science, the health properties of curcumin (the main ingredient in turmeric) been referenced more than 7,300 times in peer-reviewed articles. (2) Health figures like Dr. Josh Axe claim that the benefits of the main compound in turmeric go well beyond that of some of the most commonly prescribed drugs such as: (3)

  • Anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Anti-depressants (Prozac)
  • Chemotherapy
  • Anti-coagulants (Aspirin)
  • Painkillers
  • Diabetes drugs (Metformin)
  • Arthritis medications
  • Inflammatory bowel disease drugs
  • Cholesterol drugs (Lipitor)
  • Steroids
  1. Oregano

    The key ingredient in pizza sauce, oregano, and particularly its essential oil, is a profound herb with exquisite healing properties. Containing thymol and carvacrol, oregano contains anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties comparable to most drugs, yet without the side effects. (4)

  1. Pumpkin Pie Spice

    Like curry, pumpkin pie spice is so good for you because of the powerful blend that makes up the recipe. Traditionally, pumpkin pie spice is made by mixing together allspice, cinnamon, clove, ginger, and nutmeg. All of these ingredients are potent healing agents in their own right, but the key to pumpkin pie spice is the effect(s) that these spices have when combined together. Essentially, as we have seen in essential oils studies, the chemicals in each ingredient interact with each other in such a way that the blends’ antimicrobial properties are significantly enhanced. thus making it a fantastic solution to prevent and treat bacterial infections and various illnesses. (5)

  1. Thyme

    With 2,600 articles discussing it in the scientific literature, the key to thyme’s health benefits is the chemical thymol, which is widely known for inducing death in a variety of cancer cells. (6, 7) Thyme is also eaten to help treat a wide selection of health conditions such as arthritis, bronchitis, diarrhea, sore throat, and even bedwetting. (8)

Proper storage and expiration dates

Storing your herbs and spices correctly will not only make or break their flavor but also their medicinal benefit as well. Here are some tried-and-true tips to keep in mind: (9)

  • Whole herbs and spices keep the longest because their flavors have not been exposed to air.
  • Thus, ground herbs and spices have a shorter shelf life.
  • Whole spices and herbs will keep between 1 – 2 years.
  • Seeds will keep 2 – 3 years, and roots 3 years.
  • Ground herbs and spices will keep 1 year, ground roots for 2 years.
  • The easiest way to test whether or not your herb and spices are still potent is to gently shake the container with the cap on. Then, removing the cap after a moment, smell the container to see if the rich smell of the contents is still present.
  • Store herbs and spices in tightly sealed containers in a cool dark place ideally below 70º F. Your pantry or cupboard works great.
  • Glass works best, as it will help preserve more of the essential oil content.
  • Protect from moisture by keeping containers closed tightly. Open shaker bottles are a no-no.
  • Keep them away from direct light to prevent color fading.
  • Never store them above your stove or near other heat sources like your dishwasher or microwave.
  • Keeping them near dishwasher poses a second threat because of the extra moisture that will cause premature oxidation and spoiling.
  • Freezing herbs and spices are only a good idea for bulk purposes. Meaning, you can store a large amount to prolong shelf life if your intention is to only open the package to periodically fill the smaller containers that you use on a regular basis. This is because each time you open the package filled with bulk herbs and spices from your freezer, moisture enters the contents and will end up accumulating and ruining the batch after a while.
  • Here’s one we’re ALL guilty of doing from time to time: Don't add herbs and spices directly into something you're cooking because of the heat and moisture that is being omitted from your food. Put them on your hand first, then put them in your food.