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Choosing Herbs & Spices

Herbs and spices are an excellent way to add favor to just about any dish. What many don’t realize is that there are a multitude of health benefits to herbs and spices. First, however, in this posting I’d like to speak to how to choose the best ones. There has been so much concern over content and processing for some years I’ve actually seen some individuals not use these wonderful flavors due to concern over their quality. There is just one simple rule to consider, first and foremost, when purchasing spices and herbs…buy organic. Plain and simple. This rule covers the most important selection priorities.

Concern over the addition of MSG – monosodium glutamate – is high and with good reason. Fortunately, with so much press over MSG, many mainstream companies are phasing out the use of MSG. The good thing is if it is added, food companies do have to list it in the ingredients statement. Some less scrupulous companies sometimes hide it under one of its synonyms but it is still required to be listed. With organic, it’s just not going to be in there under any name…so much simpler.

What many do not realize is that many dried herbs and spices are irradiated. Yup, they are zapped! The purpose of this is to extend the shelflife so they will last forever, particularly on the grocery store shelf. The problem, besides the zapping part, is that this has been shown to lower the antioxidant potential of the herb or spice. Remember I mentioned the great health benefits that these have, well some of that will be lost with irradiation. So again, buy organic and they will not be irradiated…simple once again.

The other thing to remember is that spices and herbs do not last forever. Overtime, they slowly lose not only their flavor and aroma but also those lovely benefits. When purchasing, buy a quantity that you would expect to use in about 6 months. Yes, 6 months. That’s the realistic shelflife for packaged dried herbs and spices. When I’ve told people this in workshops, they typically make a horrified face and promptly run home and clean out their spice cabinet. So next time you’re in a club store and see a 9 lb jar of a spice that is only $3 and will probably last you about 9 years, think again, and wait till you can purchase a more reasonable amount.

Remember also that, for those with a green thumb, you can easily grow your own herbs in a garden or even on your window sill. Most supermarkets now stock the more common herbs available fresh in their produce sections. These are great options for especially the herbs you use most frequently and nothing is more flavorful.

You’ll see some lovely spices and herbs used in my recipes and I will do some posts addressing the benefits of these womderful natural flavor enhancers. In the meantime I can recommend an amazing book published recently by Padma Lakshmi, The Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs: An Essential Guide to the Flavors of the World. The photography in this book is so beautiful but it is primarily a wealth of information…a fantastic resource. She is not only of Top Chef fame but also one of the founders of the Endometriosis Foundation of America.

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