Herbs and spices have a traditional history of use, with strong roles in cultural heritage, and in the appreciation of food and its links to health. Demonstrating the benefits of foods by scientific means remains a challenge, particularly when compared with standards applied for assessing pharmaceutical agents. Pharmaceuticals are small-molecular-weight compounds consumed in a purified and concentrated form. Food is eaten in combinations, in relatively large, unmeasured quantities under highly socialised conditions. The real challenge lies not in proving whether foods, such as herbs and spices, have health benefits, but in defining what these benefits are and developing the methods to expose them by scientific means.
Cultural aspects: The place of herbs and spices in the diet needs to be considered in reviewing health benefits. This includes definitions of the food category and the way in which benefits might be viewed, and therefore researched. Research may focus on identifying bioactive substances in herbs and spices, or on their properties as a whole food, and/or be set in the context of a dietary cuisine.
The role of herbs and spices in health: The antioxidant properties of herbs and spices are of particular interest in view of the impact of oxidative modification of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol in the development of atherosclerosis. There is level III-3 evidence (National Health and Medical Research Council [NHMRC] levels of evidence) that consuming a half to one clove of garlic (or equivalent) daily may have a cholesterol-lowering effect of up to 9%. There is level III-1 evidence that 7.2 g of aged garlic extract has been associated with anticlotting (in-vivo studies), as well as modest reductions in blood pressure (an approximate 5.5% decrease in systolic blood pressure). A range of bioactive compounds in herbs and spices have been studied for anticarcinogenic properties in animals, but the challenge lies in integrating this knowledge to ascertain whether any effects can be observed in humans, and within defined cuisines. Research on the effects of herbs and spices on mental health should distinguish between cognitive decline associated with ageing and the acute effects of psychological and cognitive function. There is level I and II evidence for the effect of some herbal supplements on psychological and cognitive function. There is very limited scientific evidence for the effects of herbs and spices on type 2 diabetes mellitus, with the best evidence being available for the effect of ginseng on glycaemia, albeit based on four studies. More research is required, particularly examining the effects of chronic consumption patterns. With increasing interest in alternatives to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents in the management of chronic inflammation, research is emerging on the use of food extracts. There is level II evidence for the use of ginger in ameliorating arthritic knee pain; however, the improvement is modest and the efficacy of ginger treatment is ranked below that of ibuprofen. More definitive research is required.
Public health and dietary implications: Recommendations for intakes of food in the Australian guide to healthy eating do not yet include suggested intakes of herbs and spices. Future consideration should be given to including more explicit recommendations about their place in a healthy diet. In addition to delivering antioxidant and other properties, herbs and spices can be used in recipes to partially or wholly replace less desirable ingredients such as salt, sugar and added saturated fat in, for example, marinades and dressings, stir-fry dishes, casseroles, soups, curries and Mediterranean-style cooking. Vegetable dishes and vegetarian options may be more appetising when prepared with herbs and spices.
Future directions: As several metabolic diseases and age-related degenerative disorders are closely associated with oxidative processes in the body, the use of herbs and spices as a source of antioxidants to combat oxidation warrants further attention. Immediate studies should focus on validating the antioxidant capacity of herbs and spices after harvest, as well as testing their effects on markers of oxidation. This will work in parallel with clinical trials that are aiming to establish antioxidants as mediators of disease prevention. From a dietary perspective, the functionality of herbs and spices will be exposed through consideration of their properties as foods. As with most foods, the real benefits of including them in the diet are likely to emerge with a better understanding of the attributes of health that are best supported by food, and in methodological developments addressing the evidence base for their effects. These developments are well underway through evidence-based frameworks for substantiating health claims related to foods. At present, recommendations are warranted to support the consumption of foods rich in bioactive components, such as herbs and spices. With time, we can expect to see a greater body of scientific evidence supporting the benefits of herbs and spices in the overall maintenance of health and protection from disease.