Antioxidant Herbs and Antioxidant Spices

Not just flavor. Antioxidant herbs and antioxidant spices provide medical benefits too.

| December 1998/January 1999

In recent years, we've been hearing a whole lot about antioxidants, chemicals that neutralize harmful free radicals in our bodies. Free radicals are highly charged oxygen molecules (having either one too many or too few electrons) that are formed mainly as a natural byproduct of breathing, but also from exposure to food additives and pesticides, UV light, cigarette smoke, exhaust fumes, and chemical pollutants.

Not satisfied in their unstable state, free radicals roam the body, stealing mates for their unpaired electrons from unsuspecting cells. These biomolecular bandits have so far been linked to dozens of illnesses, including cancer, arteriosclerosis, and arthritis, as well as to premature aging.

Widely touted as "fountains of youth," antioxidants provide the best defense against these scavengers — either by blocking their production or by serving as biochemical kamikazes, allowing themselves to be ransacked by free radicals in place of healthy cells.

Vitamins A, C, and E, along with beta carotene (a precursor to vitamin A), are the best-known antioxidants. But none of these make their way often enough (and in sufficient quantities) into the Western diet, which tends to be heavy on fats and carbs and low on antioxidant-rich fruits, veggies, nuts, and seeds. Indeed, it is estimated that less than 10% of Americans regularly consume five fruits or vegetables daily, the National Cancer Institute's recommended minimum. Of course, supplements are always an option, and in recent years both C and E have become bestsellers for vitamin retailers nationwide. (Vitamin A can be harmful in very high doses, and so folks tend to steer clear of this one in supplement form.)

But for those who prefer to get their nutrition out of the ground rather than out of a plastic bottle, there's good news: the latest research is pointing to other natural sources that — with a sprinkle here and a dash there — can easily be incorporated into the American diet. We're talking here about antioxidant herbs and antioxidant spices.

"One way to see herbs is as compact sources of the nutrients present in foods, with relatively little of the space-consuming water and calorie content," says Lorilee Schoenbeck, N.D., a naturopathic physician in private practice at the Champlain Center for Natural Medicine in Shelburne, Vermont. "When you look at herbs as highly concentrated foods," she adds, "then it is not surprising that, ounce-for-ounce, herbs often contain much higher concentrations of given nutrients or chemical compounds. Frequently, though not always, antioxidants are among these."

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