Herbs and spices have both been used as sources of flavor enhancers and pharmaceuticals since antiquity and their use continues undiminished today. The distinction between the two sources is blurred but it has been suggested that herbs tend to be of leaf origin and spices of stem, bark and seed origin.
However, plants are complex mixtures and where a pharmaceutical role has been identified, it is most likely to be achieved through a mixture rather than a single compound. This mixture of compounds may be a factor in giving individual herbs and spices a cure-all reputation. As an example, traditionally the herb thyme has been considered as an anthelmintic, antispasmodic, carminative, emmenagogue, expectorant, rubifacient, sedative, stimulant and tonic. The plant has been used in folk medicine against asthma, artheriosclerosis, colic, bronchitis, coughs, diarrhea and rheumatism
Rosemary herb (Rosmarinus officinalus L.) is grown in many parts of the world as a six-feet-high evergreen shrub. Leaves and twigs are used as a flavouring as well as a treatment for a variety of medical conditions. It has pronounced anti-oxidant properties that may extend to the reduction of total cholesterol levels in serum and also in tissues such as the liver, heart and fatty tissue.
The likely active compounds include six compounds with three different polyphenol skeletons, phenolic diterpenes (carnosic acid, carnosal, and 12-O-methylcarnosic acid), caffeoyl derivatives (rosmarinic acid) and flavones (isoscutellarein 7-0-glucoside and genkwanin). Only in the leaves are all six compounds present at the same time
Oregano (Origanum vulgare L.) is native to northern Europe where it is cultivated commercially. Both fresh and dried leaves are used as a source of flavouring. At the same time it has been shown to have the highest anti-oxidant activity compared to the same amounts of fresh dill, thyme, sage and parsley
Ginger (Zingiber officinale Roscoe) is a perennial plant grown in hot moist climates. The tuberous roots are used fresh or as dried slices, preserved in syrup, as candy (crystallised ginger) or as a tea. It is thought to have a cholesterol-lowering and an anti-thrombosis effect through its antioxidant properties. The ginger contains volatile oils consisting of sesquiterpene hydrocarbons, predominantly zingeberene (35%) curcumene (18%) and farnesene (10%) with lesser amounts of bisabolene and bsesquiphellandrene.
Basils (Ocimum spp) are a source of flavouring and of antioxidants. The species contain essential oils, mainly 1, 8-cineole, estrageole and eugenol, flavonoids and anthocyanins. Assessment of the antioxidant capacity of the separate groups showed that most of the anti-oxidant activity was contributed by the flavonoids in the green basils and anthocyanins in purple basils, which had the highest antioxidant activity.
Cumin (Cumin cyminum L.) is a small herbaceous annual plant cultivated extensively in Asia and the Mediterranean regions. The intact or powdered seeds have been used as a spice and medicine since antiquity. The main components in the volatile oil are cuminal and safranal (accounting for 32% and 24% respectively) and small amounts of monoterpenes aromatic aldehydes and aromatic oxides.
When the anti-oxidant properties of cumin at 5% was compared with the common food additives (butylated hydroxyanisole, BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene, BHT and propyl gallate at 100 micrograms/g, BHA had greater and BHT less activity than cumin
Cinnamon is the brown bark of the cinnamon tree which when dried rolls into a tubular form known as a quill. Cinnamonum zeylanicum (Ceylon cinnamon) and Cinnamonum aromaticum (Chinese cinnamon), often referred to as Cassia, are the leading varieties consumed.
Cinnamon is available in either its whole quill tubular form (cinnamon sticks) or as a ground powder. The chief constituent is the volatile oil, which amounts to 1% of the bark. It has a variety of medical uses but its relation to cardiovascular disease is its anticlotting effect. It is also a rich source of calcium and fibre, which are both able to bind to bile salts and remove them from the body.
Turmeric is a 5–6 ft plant (Curcuma longa L.), which sends out rhizomes that can be collected and either used fresh like ginger or dried and powdered. Aromatic tumerone is the major compound present in tumeric oil alongside curcumin.
The spice is a powerful antioxidant where the antioxidant properties of the oil are thought to be due to the synergistic activities of the major components of which the active components are a group of phenolic compounds including curcumin.
Garlic (Allium sativum) has a very long folk history of use in a wide range of ailments. Daily use of garlic as in the Mediterranean diet is thought to contribute to the lower incidence of heart disease in these areas. The active components are the sulphur-containing compounds, alliin, iso-alliin and methin which, on tissue damage, release volatiles following breakdown by the enzyme alliinase.