FRIDAY, Jan. 11, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- A sprinkle a day can keep the doctor away - if what you're sprinkling on your food is one of several popular herbs now known for having powerful disease-fighting properties.
Research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows that common herbs, such as oregano, dill, thyme, rosemary and peppermint, contain as much or more antioxidant power as fruits and vegetables.
Indeed, some herbs are so potent they "should be considered vegetables," says researcher Shiow Y. Wang.
In addition to antioxidants, "herbs also contain fiber, bioflavonoids, and other healthful ingredients found in fruits and vegetables," says Wang, a plant physiologist/biochemist with the USDA's Agricultural Research Center.
One of the most potent herbs to emerge from the study was oregano, which packed a pungent punch, Wang says. Her research found 1 tablespoon of oregano had 42 times more antioxidant activity than apples, 30 times more than potatoes, 12 times more than oranges and four times more than blueberries.
The good news is, you don't even have to eat that much to gain the benefits.
"One tablespoon of oregano gives you the same antioxidant protection as an apple," Wang says.
However, the other herbs were no slouches, either. The following amounts of herbs were equal to the antioxidant power of an apple: 3 tablespoons of dill; 4.5 tablespoons of thyme; 7 tablespoons of sage, and 8 tablespoons of parsley.
Antioxidants are thought to protect health by blocking certain types of cell damage caused by free radicals, "molecules that are generated by a number of health risks, including smoking and chemical exposure," says New York University nutritionist Samantha Heller.
Foods rich in antioxidants help destroy free radicals, thus reducing the risk of cell damage that eventually can lead to cancer, heart disease and stroke, she notes.
While antioxidants come in many different forms, a number are from a family of compounds known as phenols. According to Wang, "oregano is highest in a type of phenol known as rosmarinic acid."
Although sprinkling your veggies with a helping of herbs increases their healthful potency, Heller warns not to avoid fruits and vegetables in favor of a pizza stacked high with oregano.
"Fruits and vegetables have other important healthful properties, and they shouldn't be replaced by herbs alone," she says. Pizza is also full of fat, she adds, so no matter how many herbs you sprinkle on the top, you won't outweigh the potential damage.
"What would be a good choice is a no-cheese pizza piled high with lots of vegetables and flavored with oregano and basil," Heller says.
Another smart move, she adds, is to use herbs instead of salt to flavor foods, thus reducing the health risks associated with sodium, such as high blood pressure.
Using a variety of chemical tests, Wang examined the properties of 39 different herbs, including 27 used primarily for flavoring foods and 12 used mostly for medicinal purposes.
No matter which one you choose, both Wang and Heller say fresh is best. For example, the antioxidant power of garlic is 1.5 times more powerful than garlic powder.
However, Heller cautions that you can overdo a good thing.
"Natural is not necessarily safe," she says, explaining that some herbs in a concentrated form could have "adverse effects, ranging from gastrointestinal distress to other more serious problems."
In addition, both Heller and Wang warn that pregnant women should talk to their doctor before using any herb in significant quantity.
The study appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
What To Do
For a batch of recipes using fresh herbs, plus a quick primer on which ones go with what, visit Shenandoah Growers. To learn more about the healthful benefits of herbs, visit The Herbs Research Foundation.
Want to grow your own herb garden? Get advice from Ohio State University.