Home & Garden

Add herbs to your garden and your menu this spring and summer

Editor’s note: The Focus on Research column highlights different research projects and topics being explored at Penn State. Each column will feature the work of a different researcher from across all disciplines.

Spring has finally arrived! Now that you are planning your spring vegetable garden, why not plant some herbs? April is the best time to plant herbs including basil, oregano, parsley, rosemary, cilantro, thyme, dill and sage. They make many foods more delicious and, in turn, promote healthy eating.

Herbs will not only be a new addition to your garden, but they will grow through the fall, and add flavor to your favorite spring-summer recipes and foods. Fresh basil is the perfect addition to salads and vinaigrettes. Fresh oregano, rosemary and thyme pair well with proteins — meats, poultry and fish — and will compliment grilled or roasted meats and root vegetables — just toss in sprigs or blend into a rub or marinade before cooking.

Additionally, sage is perfect for marinades, particularly when combined with lemon juice, lemon zest and garlic. For those potlucks, the addition of mint, dill, cilantro or basil to a yogurt dip will add freshness and flavor. And why not spice up salsas with fresh cilantro? Herbs are tasty and have many health benefits.

Recent research has shown that adding herbs (and spices) to vegetables increased the liking and preference for broccoli, black beans and corn, cauliflower, corn and peas, and green beans in middle and high school students. Similar work has been done in elementary school students where the addition of herbs increased intake vegetables.

Although adults tend to be less fussy and more likely to eat their vegetables, research also shows that seasoning vegetables with herbs and spices greatly improved overall enjoyment and liking in adults.

While herbs and spices may help us enjoy our veggies more, they may also help us to cut down on sugar and salt. A clinical trial found that an intervention emphasizing herbs and spices, instead of salt, in recipes or as seasoning helped participants lower their salt intake.

Spices are also a flavor replacement for sugar. In a study where sugar was reduced by about40 percent and replaced with spices, liking for apple crisps and oatmeal was still rated high. This research shows that herbs and spices may just be the antidote to complaints about the taste of healthy foods, and may also be used in place of salt and sugar to improve the healthfulness of everyday foods, including treats.

Not only do herbs and spices improve taste and food enjoyment, our lab and others have shown they are associated with a number of other health benefits.

Herbs and spices are some of the richest food sources of antioxidants. Rosemary, coriander, oregano and thyme are all high in antioxidants, and intake of these herbs has been associated with healthy immune function, less inflammation and lower cancer risk.

Cinnamon is known to lower blood sugar levels and may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. Basil, coriander, rosemary also reduce blood sugar levels.

Recent research from our lab found that the addition of herbs and spices to a typical entrée and dessert meal reduced fat levels in the blood and improved vascular health in the four hours following the meal. In this meal we included turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, oregano, parsley, basil, coriander, cumin, red pepper, rosemary, black pepper, bay leaf and thyme.

We are now investigating this further with a study looking at how incorporating different amounts of herbs and spices in a typical diet affects risk factors for heart disease over 4 weeks. This study is being run by researchers in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at Penn State, and we are currently looking for volunteer who would be willing to consume a flavorful menu prepared in our metabolic kitchen for four weeks.

If you would like more information or are interested in participating please email psudiet@gmail.com or call 863-8622 or you can find more information about our research at https://hhd.psu.edu/nutrition/cardiometabolic-lab.

Kristina Petersen is an assistant research professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at Penn State.

Tomato Basil Dijon Vinaigrette

  • Makes ½ cup

2 Tbsp. fresh basil, chopped

1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar

1 Tbsp. chopped red onion

1 Tsp. Dijon mustard

2 oz. fresh tomatoes

¾ Tsp. chopped garlic

2 Tbsp. olive oil

Pinch black pepper

Put basil, vinegar, onions, mustard, tomatoes, and garlic in food processor or blender and process until smooth. With processor or blender on add the olive oil and process until combined, and then it is ready. Taste and then season with pepper. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Best to bring to room temperature when serving. Serve with garden salad.

Yogurt Dip

  • Makes 2 cups

1 cup plain Greek-style or plain yogurt

½ cucumber, roughly chopped

Juice of ½ lemon

2 Tbsp. fresh herbs (any combination of dill, mint, cilantro or basil)

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 clove of garlic, minced

1 tsp. cumin

½ tsp. coriander

In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients and then let sit for a least 30 minutes for the flavors to meld, then serve. Can be stored for up to 3 days in the refrigerator. Best served with fresh vegetables (carrot sticks or baby carrots, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, snow peas), flat bread or your favourite crackers/chips.

Recipes from: Spice Up, Slim Down by Melina B. Jampolis