Herbs and spices bring flavor to our meals and make them more interesting. Moreover, a new study finds that the addition of herbs and spices to food that is high in saturated fat and carbohydrate may lower blood pressure and reduce the risks of cardiovascular disease.
Professor Penny Kris-Etherton of Evan Pugh University and Professor Kristina Petersen, co-principal investigator of the study while at Penn State, said the findings of the study offer people a simple way to help improve their heart health.
“Adding herbs and spices to your food is a great way to add flavor without adding extra sodium, sugar or saturated fat,” said Professor Kris-Etherton. “And, if you go a step further and add these seasonings to foods that are really good for you, like fruits and vegetables, you can potentially get even more health benefits by consuming that extra produce.”
During the study, 71 people with risk factors for heart disease, such as obesity and high blood pressure, were asked to add a mixture of herbs and spices to their daily meals. Three levels of herb and spice use were defined; the low-spice diet involved the addition of 0.5 g per day, the medium-spice diet added 3.2 g per day and the high-spice diet made use of 6.5 g of herbs and spices per day. The mixture added to the food contained 24 different herbs (such as basil and rosemary) and spices (including cinnamon and turmeric), all commonly used in the daily preparation of food.
Every participant took part in all three of the diet trials and each trial lasted for four weeks. Blood pressure was measured, and blood samples from every participant were tested, at the start of each four-week trial and then again at the end. Trials were separated by a two-week break during which the participant ate a normal diet.
Apart from adding the herbs and spices to the food, the diets were based on an average American diet and were not adjusted in any way other than by adding the flavorings.
The results showed that participants had a lower systolic blood pressure after consuming the high-spice diet than after the medium-spice diet. They also had lower diastolic blood pressure after the high-spice diet than they did after the low-spice diet.
Kris-Etherton said the results were especially exciting to her because the diets in the study were not designed to be specifically heart healthy, and only differed from an average diet by the amount of herbs and spices added.
“As nutritionists, we’re interested in new ways we can use diet to benefit health, and cardiovascular health in particular,” said Professor Petersen. “We were curious about how herbs and spices could affect heart health, since they are versatile and can be added to many different types of food.”
It has long been recognized that high blood pressure is a risk factor in cardiometabolic diseases like heart disease, strokes and type two diabetes, and that these diseases are a leading cause of death in the United States. Sodium intake, in the form of table salt, has been implicated as a factor in high blood pressure. Professor Petersen said that while people have been encouraged to flavor their food with herbs and spices instead of salt, less was known about whether herbs and spices have health benefits of their own.
“I think it’s really significant that participants consumed an average American diet throughout the study and we still found these results,” said Kris-Etherton. “We didn’t decrease sodium, we didn’t increase fruits and vegetables, we just added herbs and spices. It begs the next question that if we did alter the diet in these ways, how much better would the results be?”
The researchers suggest that future studies should test the effects of including herbs and spices into a healthy diet that is lower in salt, added sugars and solid fats. The results could help guide future dietary recommendations.
The study is published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
By Alison Bosman, Earth.com Staff Writer