They are common herbs and spices, and they are proving to be uncommonly good for you. Rosemary, basil, oregano, thyme, garlic, ginger, cilantro, cinnamon — the list is long and, in food scientists’ view, their medicinal value goes hand in hand (and dish to dish) with their decorative and culinary uses.
These are among a great number of everyday ingredients found in the kitchen and garden that function as natural medicines for the body, several of them being what botanist Jim Duke calls “faith-based” because they are mentioned in the Bible.
As far as ingesting them for their curative powers, the fresher the better, he says, because “each time you smell them you lose molecules.”
His favorite four, in terms of their medicinal value are garlic, above all, and then a toss-up among turmeric, ginger and capsicum, or hot pepper.
As if to prove in person what he writes in his many books, Mr. Duke stood by the stove in his Fulton, Md., home one recent morning and cut up a few green plants — several or them picked just minutes earlier — to add to a soup he was cooking for the volunteers weeding among the 300 species in the Dukes’ terraced garden. The author of “The Green Pharmacy” and “Anti-Aging Prescriptions” and co-author of “A Handbook of Medicinal Spices,” he retired many years ago from a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and says he hasn’t had a serious illness in his 77 years.
The smell in the kitchen was enticing; the aroma of fresh plants rubbed between the fingers even more so. He began with a few frozen vegetables and a can of tomatoes in a pot of water. Then came cilantro, celery seed, fiddlehead greens, stinging nettle — a weed that he held carefully inside a garlic mustard leaf, and, finally, some West Virginia ramps.
At noon, the soup was ready — a tasty tonic on a cold spring day. Just before serving, he added a dash of Mrs. Dash, a commercial taste-enhancer sprinkled out of a can.
Mr. Duke decidedly is no purist. A teacher as well as a research scientist, he talked as he snipped, offering practical wisdom as well some cautionary asides. He doesn’t believe in self-diagnosis or self-medicating — meaning that doctors have their place. He knows some plants contain carcinogens, but what constitutes a harmful dosage is relative and also is contingent on an individual’s metabolism and genetic makeup.
He says cilantro has a number of pain-relieving compounds, as do clove and turmeric. Celery seed, he has found, helps with his gout, and stinging nettle, which loses its bite when cooked, relieves joint pain and hay fever.
Garlic, which he says is best taken raw, is something of a magic elixir, having nine treatment uses listed in his 2001 book, “Anti-Aging Prescriptions,” and many more in “The Green Pharmacy” index. Among them are prevention of colds and flu, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. (He takes garlic pills daily as an additional precaution.) Fresh ramps he says have power as an antiseptic.
Obviously, fresh-picked herbs and spices are best, but he is not adverse to preserving them by putting them directly into the freezer in a paper or plastic bag.
“They come out looking natural but stiff,” he says.
Mr. Duke is on the staff of the Tai Sophia Institute in Laurel, a degree-granting institution for people interested in alternative or “complementary” medicine, and he uses his greenhouse and garden as a teaching tool. The plant species are arranged alphabetically according to the disease or ailment they most likely will help.
Basil — the darker the better — is good for the eyes, to help prevent macular degeneration. Cinnamon, which comes from the bark of a tree in the greenhouse, is linked with help for diabetes.
“Five hundred milligrams will increase the efficiency of insulin,” Mr. Duke asserts.
Ginger is a well-known antidote to nausea and seasickness, although no one knows how it works, he says. Every day, he takes a pill containing ginger, turmeric and seven herbs to try to lick what his doctor suspects is Lyme disease.
“The Green Pharmacy,” illustrated by his artist wife, Peggy Duke, reserves an entire section for herbal remedies that he says have compounds preventing the breakdown of acetylcholine, a brain chemical vital for preserving cognition and reasoning. Sage and rosemary are among them, as is horsebalm.
Fresh cilantro, applied externally to meat and poultry, has been found by university researchers to act as a food preservative by inhibiting E. coli. Ibrahim Salam, a professor of food science and nutrition at North Carolina A&T State University, also tried chives and found they had the same effect. Working with a graduate student, he tested 38 strains of the bacteria that cause food poisoning.
“The public is worried about food preservatives, so we found they can use chive as a natural choice,” he says.
Mint, too, wins many friends among plant scientists, especially the so-called specialty mints that, according to professor Jim Simon of Rutgers University, are not the spearmint generally found in supermarkets but have names like lemon and chocolate mint.
“Use mints in tea and breathe in the oils if you have congestion,” he says. “A lot of plants, particularly mints, will clear it.”
The oils in mints, oregano and certain types of basil he describes as “very biologically active. Some are used in other products to help in the reduction of skin infections.”
The National Institutes of Health has funded six regional centers to study the nature of botanicals, including Mr. Simon’s center, the New Use Agriculture and Natural Plant Products Program. His program will look into the beneficial consumption of certain plants for age-related diseases. The field is fast-growing, but studies done with herbs have not yet matched those done with fruits and vegetables, he adds.
Lyle Craker, a professor in the department of food science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, urges caution in making too many health claims for everyday herbs and spices. He gives more support to the idea of growing herbs such as sage, basil, thyme and sweet marjoram “to make foods taste better.”
“One of the problems we have with all of these is how to consume them and get the benefit,” he says. “We aren’t used to going out and grinding them up and making tea, although there are people who do that. I think we should grow herbs for culinary value.”
Mr. Duke would argue that we can do both.