Herbs and spices are one of the six food groups for a balanced vegan diet. These often-overlooked ingredients are rich in nutrition, particularly antioxidants, and offer health benefits.
They also add flavor to any meal, making a vegan diet more interesting and delectable!
This article reviews the health benefits of herbs and spices, why vegans should consider eating more of them, and how to add these flavorful ingredients into your dishes.
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- What are Herbs? What are Spices?
- Herbs and Spices as a Food Group
- Health Benefits of Herbs and Spices
- Nutrition Content of Herbs and Spices
- Why It’s Important to Eat Herbs and Spices as a Vegan
- List of Herbs and Spices to Include on a Vegan Diet
- How to Include More Herbs and Spices into your Diet
- Recipes Using Larger Amounts of Herbs and/ or Spices
- Summary: Herbs and Spices for Vegans
What are Herbs? What are Spices?
Herbs are plants used to flavor food. Specifically, they are leaves, flowers or stems of a plant. There’s an abundance of herbs available, some widely used and others that may be unfamiliar!
Spices are an aromatic plant substance used to flavor foods. While herbs are leaves, flowers or stems, spices can be sourced from any part of a plant including the root, seed, fruit or bark.
Regardless of whether you call it an herb or a spice, these tasty ingredients are a great way to make a vegan diet delicious.
In addition to herbs and spices, there are aromatic plants like garlic, onion and ginger which I often consider part of the vegetable food group.
Herbs and Spices as a Food Group
Traditionally, herbs and spices aren't classified as a distinct food group. However, I include them as a category because of their nutritional value, health benefits and their role in making food enjoyable.
When people think of "healthy" food, they often associate it with blandness. Promoting the use of herbs and spices demonstrates how a nutritious diet can also be delicious.
The enjoyment of culturally appropriate foods is a fundamental aspect of health, and herbs and spices play a pivotal role in maintaining such dietary traditions.
This food group includes other flavoring ingredients like sauces or pastes (curry paste, soy sauce, vinegar, etc). Salt, though vital for enhancing taste, is not considered an herb or spice per se, and I treat it separately due to its differing health impacts.
Health Benefits of Herbs and Spices
Research is continually performed on the health benefits of specific herbs and spices.
First and foremost, they have been found to be a rich source of various antioxidants 1, 2, 3. Antioxidants are thought to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, some types of cancer as well as inflammation (and inflammatory diseases) 2, 3.
Additionally, leafy green herbs often provide similar benefits to those found in other leafy green vegetables.
Spices have some of the highest antioxidant contents of any category of food, although the amount can vary widely depending on the spice 3. Typically, spices with darker or more pungent colors contain more antioxidant compounds.
Some evidence suggests that spices may help prevent cancer (in vitro and in animal models) 4. Spices may also benefit insulin and inflammatory response after a meal 5, 6, 7. Additional evidence suggests herbs and spices could benefit endothelial function after a meal 8.
However, research is not yet advanced enough to make broad recommendations for the consumption of herbs or spices for disease prevention or treatment 1.
More studies need to examine long-term impacts of including herbs and spices in human diets, as well as the specific effects of individual herbs/ spices.
Are There Certain Herbs and Spices that are the Healthiest?
While specific herbs or spices may offer distinct health advantages, consuming a range of herbs and spices provides a larger array of possible health benefits.
There isn’t a single, definitive food that people must consume for optimal health. Use herbs and spices you enjoy while taking opportunities to discover new flavors.
A varied selection of herbs and spices offers a broader spectrum of antioxidants and plant compounds that can promote well-being.
Nutrition Content of Herbs and Spices
Herbs and spices are typically consumed in small quantities, contributing minimal amounts of protein, fat, or carbohydrates to one's diet.
Leafy green herbs provide similar nutrients to other leafy green vegetables including:
However, the total nutritional intake from herbs remains limited as they are often used sparingly.
Spices, given their diversity, provide a wide range of nutrients. As with herbs, they’re consumed in small amounts, so the total amount of essential nutrients they provide is typically low.
Despite being consumed in small amounts, spices can offer a substantial amount of antioxidants (depending on the specific spice).
Why It’s Important to Eat Herbs and Spices as a Vegan
I consider herbs and spices one of the six food groups for a balanced plant-based diet for two reasons:
- Herbs and spices are rich in antioxidants and other phytochemicals that can benefit health.
- Flavoring food and enjoying the taste of meals are essential components to a balanced and sustainable eating pattern.
What better way to flavor vegan meals than with tasty plants?!
While food groups like legumes, grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds are nutritious, they often require a boost of flavor to make them into truly delicious meals! Enter herbs and spices; they provide a ton of delicious and nutritious flavor.
List of Herbs and Spices to Include on a Vegan Diet
The following are lists of herbs and spices that make great additions to vegan cooking. These lists are not exhaustive and other options exist.
Spices and dry herbs are easy to store and have a long shelf life. Store them in sealed containers or jars in a cool, dry place.
Spices and dry herbs shouldn’t spoil, but their flavor may diminish with time.
You certainly don’t need to purchase all the items on the lists below. Instead, start with a few and add others as needed, based on your recipes.
Herbs for a Vegan Diet
Herbs can be purchased fresh or dried; dry options are convenient because they last a long time. Delicious herbs to try, fresh or dried, include:
- Basil (sweet, Thai)
- Bay leaf
- Cilantro (aka coriander)
- Curry leaves
- Lemon grass
- Mint/ peppermint
Everyone has personal taste preferences, so keep your favorites on hand or try growing your own fresh herbs! Additionally, you can explore herb blends like Herbs de Provence.
Spices for a Vegan Diet
There’s really an endless list of spices to include in your diet. If you’re starting out, focus on a few spices that are essential to the recipes you enjoy most. If desired, you can build a collection from there.
My current spice cupboard includes:
- Black pepper (and white pepper)
- Caraway seeds
- Cardamom (green and black)
- Cayenne pepper
- Celery seeds
- Chili flakes
- Chili powder (American-style and Kashmiri)
- Cinnamon (sticks and ground)
- Cloves (whole and ground)
- Coriander seed (whole and ground)
- Cumin (whole seeds and ground)
- Fennel seeds
- Fenugreek seeds
- Garlic powder
- Ground ginger
- Mustard seeds (yellow, brown and black)
- Nutmeg (whole and ground)
- Nutritional yeast
- Onion powder
- Paprika (sweet and smoked)
- Star anise
As with herbs, taste preferences vary. There’s plenty of additional spices and spice blends to try out as well (ex. Garam masala, Old Bay, Zaatar, etc.). Different regional cuisines will highlight other spices.
How to Include More Herbs and Spices into your Diet
To introduce more herbs and spices in your diet, consider the following tips:
- Keep a variety of dry herbs and spices on hand: Make sure you have a stock of your favorites, and don’t hesitate to try new ones every so often!
- Try a new recipe each month: Experiment with new recipes, especially those that differ from your usual choices, to broaden your exposure to herbs, spices and flavors.
- When buying fresh herbs, have a plan to use the whole bunch: Fresh herbs are often sold in large quantities, so be prepared with a couple recipes to make the most of them.
- Toss fresh herbs and spices onto salads, sandwiches and wraps: While it might not be common to add spices and herbs to these meals, it can add a boost of flavor and get you out of a lunch rut.
- Explore international cuisines: Trying dishes from different countries or regions can expand your horizons and introduce you to a broad array of flavors.
Recipes Using Larger Amounts of Herbs and/ or Spices
While I use herbs, spices and other flavors in just about everything, here’s a few recipes that feature a larger amount of herbs and/or spices:
- TVP chili
- Tahini dill dressing
- Lemon herb tahini dressing
- Vegan seitan sausages
- Tabbouleh salad
- Spiced gingerbread loaf
- Red curry with peanut sauce
- Vegan pesto
- Homemade taco seasoning
Summary: Herbs and Spices for Vegans
Herbs and spices are a delicious food group that can elevate your vegan diet! They offer health benefits, mainly due to their antioxidant content, and, most importantly, they keep your meals interesting and flavorful.
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About Nicole Stevens
Nicole is a vegan Registered Dietitian (RD) and founder of Lettuce Veg Out.
She helps people thrive on a vegan diet with balanced recipes and easy-to-understand nutrition science.