It is no secret that the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea boast with having some of the oldest citizens in the world, and not the least, some of the healthiest citizens in the world. The life expectancy on the Greek island of Ikaria is around 90 years, however their oldest easily pass the three-digit landmark. This may be due to several factors: good physical condition, the midday nap and the Mediterranean diet, topped with optimism and a relaxed pace of living.
The Mediterranean diet consists of local fruits, vegetables and protein sources, particularly whole, single-ingredient foods. When it comes to the herbs and spices used in this type of cuisine, the list is long and the benefits are plenty (Table 1; adapted from (1)). This collection of spices and herbs has been used since ancient times in the local cuisines, but recent studies have actually proven that cooking them, either by boiling, steaming, stewing or simmering, enhances the content of antioxidant polyphenols and the subsequent properties that stem from using them; on the other hand, stir-frying and grilling seem to decrease the antioxidant amounts in these herbs (2).
Table 1. Total polyphenol content (in dry spices: mg/100g) of herbs and spices included in the Mediterranean diet
The basil herb is a particular element of the Mediterranean diet. It can be used in salads, tomato dishes and pasta sauces, the most famous of them being the Italian pesto. The French collection of herbs known as “herbes de Provence” also contains basil. And its medicinal utilities derive from anti-diabetic and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as lowering cholesterol levels and blood pressure.
Bay leaf is quite common in Southern Europe and often cooked in sweet and savory dishes; it is also one of the components of the “bouquet garni”, a bundle of herbs, tied with string, used to prepare soups, broths and various stews. Bay leaf has been shown to have anti-diabetic and anti-inflammatory effects, as well as lowering cholesterol levels.
Coriander leaves (known as cilantro) and coriander seeds are both extensively used for cooking, as well as pickling and flavoring sausages. And coriander seed extract seems to reduce serum glucose and cholesterol, while increasing renal function and urine elimination.
Cumin is a wild growing plant in the Mediterranean region, used widely in cuisines around the world. The grounded seeds are often used for meat dishes, to flavor sauces, pickles and bread. The cumin seeds have anti-diabetic effects and reduce cholesterol levels.
Dill often accompanies seafood and is commonly used for pickling. Dill extracts have anti-diabetic and hypolipidemic effects.
Fennel is a very versatile plant, as most parts of it (the bulb, the leaves, the flowers and the seeds) are edible and often used in Mediterranean dishes. Raw in salads, flavoring sausages and bread or herbal tea, these are the most common uses of this plant. Fennel has anti-diabetic and anti-inflammatory potential, as well as lowering cholesterol and triglycerides.
Oregano, as a species, is comprised of several subspecies and is often used as a dried herb, and another ingredient in the herbal French collection known as “bouquet garni”. Oregano possesses anti-diabetic, hypolipidemic and anti-inflammatory properties.
Flat leaf or curly leaf parsley are often used as garnish, as well as sauces and savory dishes. The Italian gremolata and the French persillade both contain butter-sautéed parsley; it can also be found in the herbal collections “bouquet garni” and “fines herbes”. Parsley has anti-diabetic, anti-hypertensive and anti-inflammatory properties.
Rosemary is particularly present in the French cuisine, in “bouquet garni”, as well as a wide variety of meat dishes, soups and stews. It has anti-diabetic, anti-hypertensive and anti-inflammatory properties.
The sage plant is native to the Mediterranean basin, used particularly to flavor pork dishes, stuffings, stews and sausages, and is one of the components of “bouquet garni”. Sage also possesses anti-diabetic, anti-hypertensive and anti-inflammatory properties.
Another typical French herb, tarragon is widely used in bernaise and bechamel sauces, as well as flavoring chicken meat. While it is a component of “bouquet garni”, tarragon can also be steeped in oils and vinegar to prepare dressings. It mostly possesses anti-diabetic properties.
Thyme is another plant divided in multiple subspecies, used in a wide variety of savory dishes. It is a component of both “herbes de Provence” and “bouquet garni”. Thyme extract has been shown anti-inflammatory and hypolipidemic properties.
1. A. Bower, S. Marquez, E. G. de Mejia, The Health Benefits of Selected Culinary Herbs and Spices Found in the Traditional Mediterranean Diet. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 56, 2728-2746 (2016).
2. M. Chohan, G. Forster-Wilkins, E. I. Opara, Determination of the antioxidant capacity of culinary herbs subjected to various cooking and storage processes using the ABTS(*+) radical cation assay. Plant Foods Hum Nutr 63, 47-52 (2008).