Category Archives: herbs and spices


Choosing The Right Cinnamon

Can you smell it? The apple pie roasting in the oven on a cold winter’s night?  Some of the fondest memories of my childhood involved a spice that in many parts of the country defines classical Americana, Cinnamon.   What some don’t know is that Cinnamon can do more for us than create the sweet scent of our childhood.  It has been used for centuries in traditional Asian medicines.  Today it has become fairly well known in herbal medicine and for good reason.  The bark we love dried up and ground for cooking has powerful medicinal qualities.  In fact, Cinnamon has scientific evidence as a natural treatment for diabetes, and metabolic syndrome in addition to being an antibacterial agent and antioxidant.

Types of cinnamon

There are over 250 species of the cinnamon plant, of which four are used as the spice we know as Cinnamon.  When it comes to the therapeutic potential of Cinnamon there are two species to consider.  You may have noticed this at the grocery store when you looked for some in the spice aisle where you find “common” Cinnamon, often marked as Cinnamon, and another type of Cinnamon, marked as Ceylon cinnamon, also known as true cinnamon, Sri Lankan cinnamon, or by its botanical name Cinnamomum zeylanicum. Ceylon cinnamon is considered by traditional herbalists and culinary aficionados as the most authentic of cinnamon. 

Which one is better

In addition to its more authentic sweeter taste, Ceylon cinnamon is also the superior cinnamon when it comes to its therapeutic uses.  The reason for this has to do with a chemical found in cinnamon (and a variety of other foods and spices we eat) called coumarin and its toxicity to your liver via the Cytochrome P450 detoxification system.  “Common” cinnamon has a high amount of coumarin yet Ceylon cinnamon often has little to none of it which makes it safe to use in therapeutic dosages.  At first glance, this may seem alarming but think of this system as one of the ways that our bodies take certain foods, medicines, and herbals and turn them into a form that our body can make use or get rid of.  Without it, many well-known plants, foods, and medicines would be toxic to our bodies.  You may have heard of this system before and not even knew it as it’s the system in our liver behind grapefruit juice’s impact on a variety of medications.   

Why choose Ceylon

Considering that “common” cinnamon can contain up to 1,000 times more coumarin than Ceylon cinnamon, it puts a lot of pressure on respectable herbal companies to use it in medicinal formulations and this helps to drive up the price compared to “common” cinnamon.   The price of Ceylon cinnamon is a reason why most processed food manufacturers use “common” cinnamon more.  One study showed that out of a variety of bakery and cereal products, the highest coumarin came from cinnamon and the cinnamon used was the “common” variety.  If you have considered using cinnamon for its therapeutic potential, or if you just love the spice like I do and find yourself putting it in everything, then do your liver and tongue a favor and check to make sure you are purchasing Ceylon cinnamon. Oh and add crummy quality cinnamon to the list of reasons why it’s better to just stick to your own home cooked foods and kick the processed food habit. Don’t put that extra stress on your liver.



Abraham, K., et al. (2010). Toxicology and risk assessment of coumarin: focus on human data. Molecular Nutrition & Food Research54(2), 228-239. 

Blahová, J., & Svobodová, Z. (2012). Assessment of Coumarin Levels in Ground Cinnamon Available in the Czech Retail Market. The Scientific World Journal2012, 263851.

Fentem, J. H., Hammond, A. H., Garle, M. J., & Fry, J. R. (1992). Toxicity of coumarin and various methyl derivatives in cultures of rat hepatocytes and V79 cells. Toxicology In Vitro: An International Journal Published In Association With BIBRA6(1), 21-25.

Kiani, J., & Imam, S. Z. (2007). Medicinal importance of grapefruit juice and its interaction with various drugs. Nutrition Journal6, 33. 

Medagama, A. B. (2015). The glycaemic outcomes of Cinnamon, a review of the experimental evidence and clinical trials. Nutrition Journal14, 108.

Nabavi, S. F., et al. (2015). Antibacterial Effects of Cinnamon: From Farm to Food, Cosmetic and Pharmaceutical Industries. Nutrients, 7(9), 7729–7748.

Ranasinghe, P., et al. (2013). Medicinal properties of “true” cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum): a systematic review. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine13, 275. 

Terrific Health Benefits Of Turmeric

Officially known as Curcuma longa, turmeric is an herb that has been used for thousands of years. You can use this incredibly tasty spice with a variety of foods and it even provides several important health benefits.

What Is Turmeric?

Native to India and related to the ginger plant, turmeric is the primary spice used in the Indian dish known as curry. Often available at ethnic grocery stores, sometimes at larger traditional grocery stores, it’s best to use turmeric when it’s fresh since the essential oils are more powerful. Fresh turmeric, however, doesn’t last long and must either be consumed quickly, frozen, or made into powder form.

Health benefits of turmeric

Turmeric provides several incredible health benefits and may play a part in preventing many diseases. The bioactive compounds, called curcuminoids, are largely responsible for the health benefits of turmeric:

  • natural anti-inflammatory properties
  • highly antioxidant
  • improves brain function
  • may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease
  • may potentially help prevent certain cancers
  • when applied in paste form may help promote the healing of wounds and bruises

Tasty ways to use turmeric

Most often we think of turmeric as it is used in curries, but there are many ways to enjoy it. Incorporating healthy ingredients into scrambled eggs or a tasty frittata is easy when you add turmeric. It works well with nearly all types of veggies, particularly cauliflower. Rice, stews, soups, desserts, and tea are all delicious when turmeric is added to the recipe. Turmeric is even used in juices and different types of smoothies.

Turmeric is an incredible herb that can be used fresh or in powder form. It offers a rich, distinct flavor to dozens of dishes and may be instrumental in preventing many serious health conditions. Keeping fresh or powdered turmeric in the kitchen is a great way to add rich flavor to foods you enjoy while providing many potential health benefits.


Mushroom Curry
  1. 1 cup coconut milk
  2. 2 roma tomatoes, diced (keep liquid)
  3. 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
  4. 1 1/2 tsp coriander powder
  5. 1 tsp grated fresh ginger
  6. 1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
  7. 4 coves garlic, minced
  8. 1 medium onion, diced
  9. 2-4 tbsp coconut oil
  10. 2 large portobello mushrooms, diced bite size
  11. 2 zucchini, diced bite size
  12. 2 yellow squash, diced bite size
  13. 2 cups snap peas diced
  14. 1 bell pepper, diced
  15. 1 eggplant diced
  16. 1 tsp sea salt
  17. 2 tbsp cashews, divided
  18. 2 tbsp cilantro, minced
  1. Mix together cumin, coriander, turmeric, and black pepper and set aside
  2. Place eggplant into a bowl and sprinkle with salt to sweat
  3. Set aside to sit for one hour, rinse before using
  4. Add 2 tbsp coconut oil to pan
  5. Add onion and saute until starting to soften
  6. Add garlic and ginger and cook 2 minute
  7. Add spices and stir well for 1 minute
  8. Add tomatoes and liquid
  9. Add mushrooms and stir well, cook 1-2 minutes, add more coconut oil if needed
  10. Add vegetables and cook 2-3 minutes
  11. Add coconut milk, bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer 15 minutes or so until vegetables are tender
  12. Add sea salt
  13. Serve over basmati rice
  14. Garnish with cilantro and cashews
  15. Top with quick mango pickle if desired
Adapted from Curry In A Hurry
Adapted from Curry In A Hurry
The Ingredient Guru, Mira Dessy


Quick Mango Pickle
  1. 3 ripe but firm mangos, peeled, seeded, and diced
  2. 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
  3. 1/2 tsp paprika
  4. 1 clove garlic, minced
  5. 1/2 tsp sea salt
  6. 2 tbsp coconut oil
  7. 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
  8. 1/2 tsp urad dal
  9. pinch chili powder
  10. 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
  1. heat oil
  2. add mustard seed and urad dal and cook 1 minute
  3. add garlic and cook 1minute
  4. add turmeric, paprika, and chili powder, stir well
  5. reduce heat
  6. add mango and vinegar, cover and simmer on low 20 minutes or until soft and well combined
  1. keeps well in the fridge for 2-3 weeks
Adapted from India Today
Adapted from India Today
The Ingredient Guru, Mira Dessy


Grover, A.K. and Samson, S.E. Benefits of antioxidant supplements for knee osteoarthritis: rationale and reality. Nutr J. 2016; 15: 1.nPublished online 2016 Jan 5. 

McClees, Heather. One Green Planet. How to heal cuts and wounds with turmeric. 2017 Feb 8.

Nagpal, M and Sood, S. Anti-inflammatory and Anti-oxidant Properties of Curcuma longa (Turmeric) Versus Zingiber officinale(Ginger) Rhizomes in Rat Adjuvant-Induced Arthritis. J Nat Sci Biol Med. 2013 Jan-Jun; 4(1): 3–7.

Ramirez-Tortosa, M.C., et al. Oral administration of a turmeric extract inhibits LDL oxidation and has hypocholesterolemic effects in rabbits with experimental atherosclerosis. AtherosclerosisVolume 147, Issue 2, December 1999, Pages 371-378.

Shanmugam, M.K., et al. The Multifaceted Role of Curcumin in Cancer Prevention and Treatment. Molecules 201520(2), 2728-2769.




Ingesting Essential Oils

Benefits of essential oils

As we grow and learn we come across new information.  Sometimes this information contradicts what we learned before. I want to take a moment and share my research and revised thinking around the practice of ingesting essential oils.  I’ll start by sharing that I am neither an herbalist or an aromatherapist. My knowledge of the use of essential oils came from classes and self-study with some great books (see the resource list below). But I am not certified in either of those fields and this post is only meant to share my thinking about ingesting essential oils.
This post is also not a discussion of which brand of essential oils is better (and believe me there are a lot of them out there).  It’s not a sales post, I’m not asking you to buy oils from me or from any supplier.  I’m also not endorsing any particular brand, seller, or distribution method.  I do, however, want to share what I believe to be very important information with you.  

What are essential oils

Essential oils are amazing.  These volatile aromatic plant elements, distilled from seeds, stems, bark, root, leaves, or flowers, are a form of aromatherapy.  Growing in usage and popularity it’s becoming more common to hear of people using the oils for a wide variety of applications.  I use them personally and have enjoyed the benefits of their supportive properties.  

How to use essential oils

We have incorporated essential oils into our home, take small travel kits with us when we are on the road and feel that we have personally benefitted from their use.  I’m far from alone in that. Essential oils are enjoying a resurgence in use and many people not only enjoy using them (because they do smell great) but they also find them to be helpful.  Here are a few simple ways that essential oils can be added to a wellness routine:

  1. For calming and stress relieving benefits
  2. To soothe and warm muscles after a workout
  3. For an aromatic and invigorating lift
  4. To maintain clear airways and support breathing
  5. To soothe occasional skin irritations
  6. To use for a restful night’s sleep
  7. To reduce the appearance of blemishes
  8. To reduce bloating or occasional indigestion

My story

I started, like many people, to use essential oils because I was looking for a more plant-based, non-chemical, low additive solution to a number of different things like artificial fragrances for home cleaning. The more I learned, the more oils we seemed to accumulate.  In the beginning, when I first began to use essential oils I learned that it was okay to use them internally.  So I did.  However the more I learned about essential oils the more I began to understand how potent they really are.  In response I limited which ones I was open to taking internally, severely reducing the number of oils that I was comfortable with using in this manner.  I was vocal with my family and others about not indiscriminately taking a wide range of oils internally.

As my studies continued I learned more information.  So that brings us to now…the reason I’ve written this post. I have changed my mind completely and no longer suggest or support taking any oils internally.  I have come to this viewpoint from several different sources:

Conversations about essential oils

Conversations with two friends and colleagues, Heather Kaminsky and Sarah Bearden, both of whom are licensed aromatherapists and who have cautioned against taking oils internally.  Essential oils are extremely potent extracts.  For example, it takes one pound of peppermint plant matter to make one-half ounce (15 ml) of essential oil.  Taking one drop internally is equivalent to drinking 28 cups of peppermint tea.  That can be very overwhelming for your system.

Both Heather and Sarah referenced the works of Robert Tisserand (recognized as one of the leading authorities on aromatherapy and essential oils). This prompted me to learn more about him and his work. I bought a number of his books and began reading them.   The more I read the more I realized that internal consumption of essential oils is not a good thing.  Many essential oils are highly antibacterial.  Taking them internally can impact your intestinal eco-system which is never a good idea.  The oils are potent enough that aromatic use and/or diluted external use (applied to the affected area or the bottoms of the feet for systemic absorption) are still highly effective.  Taking essential oils neat or undiluted should be done with caution because they are so potent.  Neat application can potentially eventually lead to overexposure and may cause you to develop a sensitivity.

Science and essential oils

Plain science.  Oil and water do not mix.  I know this.  I’m going to confess that I’m embarrassed that this never occurred to me.  I was following the advice and support of those I considered to be far more knowledgeable than I was and did not ever stop to think about or consider this for myself.  Oil and water do not mix.  Therefore adding essential oil to water and tossing it down doesn’t dilute it in any way.  It’s just a delivery system.  However essential oils by their very nature adhere to mucosal membranes.  This is part of why they are not good for your gut.  They’re also not good for your mouth or any other sensitive mucosal membranes. 

In going back through many of the scientific studies I frequently refer to regarding using essential oils (and there are quite a few of them) the most common use, by far, is aromatically, topically is next.  I find very few that suggest oral usage.  Here are just a couple of studies, two for aromatic use and one for topical:

  1. Ambient odors of orange and lavender reduce anxiety and improve mood in a dental office 
  2. The effects of lavender and rosemary essential oils on test-taking anxiety among graduate nursing students
  3. Application of orange essential oil as an antistaphylococcal agent in a dressing model

In doing my research I also looked at a couple of different aromatherapy organizations and their recommendations:

  • International Federation of Aromatherapists, “No Aromatherapist shall use essential oils for internal ingestion or internal application, nor shall any Aromatherapist advocate or promote such use of essential oils.
  • Alliance of International Aromatherapists, “AIA does not endorse internal therapeutic use (oral, vaginal or rectal) of essential oils unless recommended by a health care practitioner trained at an appropriate clinical level. An appropriate level of training must include chemistry, anatomy, diagnostics, physiology, formulation guidelines and safety issues regarding each specific internal route (oral, vaginal or rectal). Please refer to the AIA Safety Guidelines for essential oil use.”  

Furthermore, it turns out that some oils are hepatotoxic, toxic for the liver; even external application is not suggested for their use.  Those oils have been banned and are not common nor easy to find.  Other oils can be significantly dangerous when ingested.  The following essential oils should never be taken internally: Aniseed, Basil, Bay, Cassia, Cinnamon, Clove, Fennel, and Tarragon.  

In one case there is a report of “A near-fatal case of high dose peppermint oil ingestion.”  


Although peppermint can be a supportive essential oil, when taken to excess (especially internally) it can be harmful.  It’s important to note that too much of anything can be bad for you.  If a little bit is helpful it doesn’t mean that a lot is better.  In some cases, as shown by the study listed above, too much can indeed be very harmful.  

Because I don’t want you to be concerned about the idea that peppermint oil may kill you I’d like to share the following beneficial uses:

– easing stomach aches
– easing headaches
– soothing respiratory tract function
– soothing sore muscles
– stimulating the scalp
– boosting energy and wakefulness
– cooling and supportive for reducing fever

Drink this not that

If you want the benefit of herbs and plants and want to be able to take them internally the best possible way to do this is through the use of herbal teas.  These provide far less potency than essential oils but they are no less effective.  For example, while mint essential oil may help relieve some of the pressure and discomfort related to a headache, that’s when it’s applied externally to the temples or the base of the neck.  

For internal support, mint tea can also be effective as noted in this article:  Spearmint: A New Natural Antimigraine Remedy – A Personal Anecdote with Spearmint (Mentha spicata) as Migraine Prophylaxis.

Screenshot 2016-09-06 13.02.43

Other herbal teas that can be highly supportive of a variety of health needs including:

  • ginger tea – helpful to prevent or reduce the discomfort of nausea, also supportive for bloating or digestive distress
  • rooibos tea – highly antioxidant, drinking this tea may be helpful for those with eczema
  • dandelion tea – natural support for the liver, dandelion tea is also believed to help support bile production and digestion
  • chamomile tea – well known as a calmative, this tea can be supportive for reducing stress and many people find it helpful for sleep
  • raspberry leaf tea – considered beneficial for oral health including soothing canker sores and gingivitis, it’s also believed to be supportive for anemia and leg cramps

I want to offer a caution as well.  In all cases, you need to realize that just because these are plants does not mean that they are harmless.  Herbs (and other plants) and their distillations can be highly potent and may have a significant impact on the body.  They cannot be taken indiscriminately.  

Having said that I don’t believe that having multiple cups of herbal tea is bad for you (unless you are sensitive to any of the ingredients).  I also know that I have benefitted, from using both herbal concoctions and essential oils.  They can be used effectively but it must be done with caution.

In conclusion, I like essential oils, I have personally found them to be useful.  However, I strongly advise against taking them internally. If you want to make use of the beneficial support of plants on an internal basis I would suggest you consider drinking herbal teas instead. 


These are some of my favorite herbal and aromatherapy books.  I have learned a lot from them but again this is all self-study and does not indicate certification.

Please note that the books listed are Amazon links and, at no extra cost to you, if you purchase through these links I may receive a small commission.

Is It Coriander Or Cilantro?

Many people may not realize that coriander and cilantro are actually the same thing. An herb that is part of the same botanical family as carrots and parsley. Sometimes it’s even referred to as either Chinese or Mexican parsley.

Can you taste it?

Coriander and cilantro are actually both part of the same plant. Cilantro refers to the leaves while cilantro is the seeds. Cilantro is used a lot in Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine but can also be found in Middle Eastern dishes.  One of my favorite ways to use it is in Quinoa Tabbouleh. Coriander is also used in Mexican dishes but also tends to feature heavily in curries.  Adding it to a stew or soup is a great way to spice it up and add a new level of flavor.

One of the most unusual things about cilantro is the taste. While many people love and enjoy it, there are those to whom it tastes soapy. It turns out this may be due to a particular genetic trait. They examined this on SciShow

Why Does Cilantro Taste Like Soap

Health benefits

In addition to being tasty, cilantro and coriander have some wonderful health benefits.  High in vitamin K, A, and C, as well as folate and potassium. It’s also a powerful detoxifier and anti-inflammatory herb.  And it is being studied for it’s ability to lower cholesterol and blood pressure while supporting cardiovascular health.

The infographic below lists some more health benefits for this amazing herb.  Easy to grow at home, put it in an 8-10″ deep pot in a sunny, easterly or southerly window.  Plan new seeds every two to three weeks to ensure a constant supply of cilantro.  Let some go to seed in order to harvest coriander.


























Infographic courtesy of

Boost Nutrition With Herbs

When it comes to fresh product most of us think fruits and vegetables.  Not everyone remembers to include herbs in that category, however they are a great added source of nutrients.  Herbs boost nutrition because they are a nutrient dense food with vitamins and minerals. Many of them are even a source of anti-oxidants.  Aim for 2-4 tablespoons of herbs per day for a healthy boost to your diet.

fresh vs. dry

When using herbs it’s important to remember that there is a big difference between fresh and dry.  The ratio is one to three; one part dry or three parts fresh.  So if a recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of fresh herb (such as basil) you can substitute 1 teaspoon of dry.  Remember there are 3 teaspoons in a tablespoon.  Be sure to read your recipe carefully and scale up or down properly.

nutrition boosts

As mentioned above, different herbs have different nutrient values.  The table below shares the health boosting properties of ten common herbs used in the kitchen.

Health Benefits
    high in vitamins C, K, and iron, this is also an antioxidant and a powerful detoxifier
    an immune system booster, parsley is supportive for bones, the nervous system.  also beneficial for kidney health and blood pressure
    high in vitamin K, highly antioxidant and anti-inflammatory
    memory enhancing  benefits
    rich in vitamins B6, C, A, folate, calcium, iron, and potassium, is also highly anti-inflammatory and antiseptic
    beneficial to reduce swelling and aching, rosemary has also been shown to soothe an upset stomach. studies also show it’s benefits for lowering the risk of asthma, liver disease, gum disease, and heart disease
    contains vitamin C, iron, and manganese with anti-microbial, antibacterial, and anti-parasitic qualities
    studies show thyme is supportive for coughing, bronchitis, chest congestion, and other respiratory ailments
    a good source of vitamin K, iron, manganese, and calcium.  a good source of antioxidants, oregano is also antibacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-parasitic
    supportive for relieving colds and congestion.  also shown to be helpful against menstrual cramps, fatigue, bloating, and acne
    a rich source of vitamin C
    stimulates and supports the digestive system and has been shown to be beneficial for flatulence and constipation.  also beneficial for oral health and supporting gums
    high in vitamin C and manganese, a good antibacterial herb
    supportive for bladder health, dill is also a natural diuretic.  appeas to be effective for supporting blood sugar levels and reducing cholesterol
    rich in vitamins A, K, and manganese as well as having antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties
    supportive for digestion, basil also has been shown to reduce swelling and pain in joints, to promote circulation, and is a mild diuretic
    contains vitamins A, C and folate
    has benefits for digestive support against gas, upset stomach, and indigestion.  studies have also shown benefits for congestion
    Cilantro (aka Coriander)
    good source of vitamins K, A, and C, cilantro is highly antioxidant, antibacterial and a power detoxifier
    studies have shown benefits for blood sugar and cholesterol levels


growing herbs

Many herbs are easy to grow at home.  They can be grown either in a container or directly in the garden.  The infographic below provides planting instructions, flavor profiles, and suggested uses.  Add a nutrient and flavor boost to your diet by incorporating herbs.

Herb Your Enthusiasm Infographic
“Herb Your Enthusiasm” on Health Perch


Some Like It Hot

Spicy heat is an interesting flavor to consider since it is not typically included among the five generally-recognized tastes – sweet, salt, bitter, sour, and umami.  These five sensations are experienced when receptors on the surface of the tongue become activated by food, triggering nerve fibers that run to the brain to signal a specific taste.  Spicy heat is not perceived in the same way.

Spice Perception

Your trigeminal system controls spice perception and the ensuing heat sensation. The system detects pain and irritation through nerve endings that are sensitive to touch, temperature, and pain. Capsaicin, the molecule that gives hot peppers their “kick,” for example, binds to a receptor on nerve cells that detect temperature and those that send messages of pain. Piperine, a compound found in black pepper, and allyl isothiocynanate, the burning compound in mustard and radishes, function similarly.

“Send messages of pain” might resonate with those of us who cannot handle spice. The reason we might feel a painfully “hot” sensation when we eat jalapeños, for example, is because the receptors that jalapeños trigger are usually turned on at temperatures higher than 107 degrees – this hurts! There’s no obvious biological reason why we should tolerate this chili sensation, and yet many actively seek it out and enjoy it.

These spice lovers likely curated their tolerance by eating an abundance of spicy foods and peppers. Through repeated exposure, the taste receptors eventually stop responding so strongly to the compounds found in peppers – known as capsaicin desensitization – which may explain why some are able to tolerate more spice than others. Cultural norms can also contribute to a higher tolerance for spicy food. In places like India and South America, hot peppers and spices are a part of the daily cuisine. However, even with this proclivity toward spice, these cultures don’t seem to participate in the competitive, insane heat-seeking activities that Americans pursue.

Hot and Spicy Trends

Despite the fact that nature seems to have created capsaicin and its heat sensation to repel us, food manufacturers are now using it to draw us in. Spicy foods appear to be trendy, particularly spice added to processed foods. Nearly every major commercial snack brand has some form of hot sauce flavored potato chip or cheesy puff product from Sriracha to Tapatio and Trader Joe’s currently boasts a bag of extremely spicy Ghost Pepper potato chips.

Many processed foods are now promoted for their extremely spicy and “fiery” flavors as we can see in this slideshow.

Cognitive scientists have studied how relief and pleasure sensations are intertwined in the brain, suggesting that this may explain what motivates someone to eat the world’s hottest chili pepper, the Carolina Reaper, and post it on YouTube.  What we might view as pure torture and physical agony, appears to produce satisfaction from the relief felt after the painful chili flavor subsides.  Psychologist Paul Rozin argues that activities such as this allow us to believe we’re doing something dangerous without any real repercussions and he coined the term “benign masochism.”

A senior manager of consumer insights for General Mills explains, “You get endorphins when you eat something really spicy,” which can feel intensely exciting to flavor-seeking eaters and can “create a lot of loyalty.”

General Mills and other food manufacturers have found a way to capitalize on this trend and continue to increase the heat of foods in pursuit of this “loyalty.”  Fast food chains boast fiery fries and chicken wings, while commercial items are branded as hot habanero, ghost pepper and “wicked wasabi,” complete with goading marketing to entice the heat-addicted among us to purchase and consume them.

Perhaps spicy heat is not among the five biological taste sensations we normally experience for a reason. Pain is not typically something most of us intentionally seek out. However, if you enjoy a modicum heat and don’t experience gastrointestinal distress or other concerning side effects – more power to you.

How to Enjoy Spice Healthfully

Ideally, we can get our spice fix by consuming natural foods without ingredients such as added sugar or xanthan gum, which is often added to hot sauces to make them thicker.  Instead, we can add heat through fresh ginger, wasabi, curry or chili powders, crushed red pepper, and jalapeño or chipotle peppers while staying far away from fast food’s gimmicky “extra spicy” menu items.

What’s Really In Your Food

As you know I spend a lot of time at the grocery store and in people’s pantries looking at labels.  The other day I was at a grocery store for a book signing.  I was there for two days.  While I obviously couldn’t see every person in the grocery store I was sitting in an area where I had a pretty good field of vision for quite a few aisles.  It took until halfway through the second day before I saw someone actually look at a label.  I was so excited that this woman actually read the label that I ran over and told her so.  Most people either simply selected their favorites or only looked at the front of the package to compare products.

Unfortunately when we shop on autopilot we don’t realize what’s in our food.  Reading the label is the only way to know what you’re really eating.

Below is a list of ingredients that belongs to a very common item found in many homes.  It’s also especially popular with children so they consume quite a bit of it:

 Soybean Oil, Water, Egg Yolk, Sugar, Salt, Cultured Nonfat Buttermilk, Natural Flavors (Soy), Spices. Less than 1% of Dried Garlic, Dried Onion, Vinegar, Phosphoric Acid, Xanthan Gum, Modified Food Starch, Monosodium Glutamate, Artificial Flavors, Disodium Phosphate, Sorbic Acid and Calcium Disodium EDTA as Preservatives, Disodium Inosinate and Disodium Guanylate.

So what is it?

Ranch dressing.  Specifically Hidden Valley Ranch.  I’m not focusing on them, I simply had to pick a bottle and a label.

So let’s break this label down and understand what we’re looking at:

Genetically modified – the soybean oil and quite possibly the modified food starch which often comes from corn.

Sugar – added sugars in the diet increase inflammation, lower the immune system response, and, in things like dressing, are, in my opinion, not necessary.

rBGH – the buttermilk almost certainly contains this hormone which was given to the cows to make them produce more milk.  Linked to an increase in IGF-1 which is linked to diabetes it’s not something you want in your food.

MSG – flat out, right on the label.  This ingredient may make things taste better but it can cause a wide range of symptoms from headaches, rashes, and flushing to muscle weakness and fatigue.

Artificial flavors – why would you want to eat anything fake?

Unknown ingredients – do you really know what Phosphoric Acid, Disodium Phosphate, Sorbic Acid, Calcium Disodium EDTA, Disodium Inosinate and Disodium Guanylate are?  If you don’t know what it is you shouldn’t eat it.  Just as a brief example of some of the health risks, phosphoric acid may be linked to lowered bone density, and calcium disodium EDTA is a preservative which has the potential to cause kidney damage.

I cannot recommend strongly enough how important it is to know what’s in your food and to read the label.

Looking for an alternative to packaged ranch dressing?  Try making your own, simple to make, fresh tasting, tangy and the flavors can be modified to be exactly to your personal preference.

homemade ranch dressing

Homemade Ranch Dressing

1/2 cup organic whole milk*
1 tablespoon raw apple cider vinegar
2 cloves garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley
1 teaspoon fresh chopped chives
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons organic sour cream
fresh ground black pepper to taste

Pour apple cider vinegar into milk and let sit
In a separate, wide mouth bowl place garlic and salt
Mash together with a fork until garlic turns into a paste
Add chopped herbs, mayonnaise, sour cream, and black pepper
Blend this mixture with milk, combine well
Best served immediately, however leftovers store well in the fridge for up to a week

This is delicious not only on vegetables but as an addition to mashed potatoes, as a dressing for pasta salads, and is the perfect dipping sauce for homemade wings.

*Note:  there was a typo in the original which called for 1 cup of milk.  That will make a very thin ranch dressing.  I prefer mine a little creamier and so have amended it to reflect my initial recipe.

photo: Diádoco

The Benefits Of Garlic

garlic for healthAre you a garlic lover? You may not have realized that with all that garlic breath you’re actually improving your health (and maybe warding off vampires). In fact, it’s health benefits have been noted dating all the way back to ancient Rome and Egypt, but what exactly does it do for you?

A great source of vitamin-C, vitamin B6, phosphorus, potassium, copper, iron, zinc, selenium, calcium, magnesium, and manganese, garlic’s secret lies in the compound called allicin.  This compound is responsible for all the purported health benefits by increasing the body’s production of hydrogen sulfide and leading to a number of changes.  Believed to protects against cancers, it is an anti-inflammatory vegetable which boosts the immune system, It is also antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-fungal. As if that’s not enough, it’s also highly supportive for detoxification.

With the increase in interest in detoxing your body, it’s good to know how garlic helps with this process. Remember those sulfur compounds mentioned above? Those compounds activate liver enzymes that rid the body of toxins. On top of that, it provides both allicin and selenium, which protect the liver from damage. So next time you’re looking for a new detox recipe, try using garlic.

An interesting health benefit of garlic is that it helps with cough, sore throats, and stuffy noses or congestion. [editor note: when we have illness in our home a favorite remedy is to chop up a fresh clove of garlic and swallow it down with water.  It may be a bit pungent but it seems to do the trick.  Note of caution, do not do this on an empty stomach or you may vomit.]

Also good for circulation; the hydrogen sulfide compounds found in this vegetable relaxes the blood vessels.  It is believed to increase blood flow and it may even help protect the heart. Because of the changes in blood and circulation, it may also improve aerobic performance. A study done on college endurance athletes showed that both VO2 max and endurance performance time increased following garlic supplementation; perhaps that’s why ancient Egypt fed their athletes garlic before the Olympic Games and the Romans believed it aided strength. Consider taking supplements (or even try it fresh) before you exercise and see if it helps improve your performance.

You can easily maximize the health benefits that you do get from garlic by putting a little thought into preparation. The healthy compounds are boosted and can withstand cooking when the cloves are crushed or cut at room temperature and then allowed to sit for 10- 15 minutes. To get the most out of your garlic for health and flavor, cook it the least amount as possible. When adding it to a recipe that calls for onions and other aromatics always put the garlic in last.  Finally, researchers believe that aged garlic contains the healthiest properties.

If you’re a garlic lover, you may not even care about the negative effects, but for some they can be a large deterrent. Negative effects include bad breath, gastric upset, body odor, heartburn, and bloating. However, if you’re opting for supplements rather than fresh, some rare effects can happen including headaches, fatigue, and dizziness. Lastly, because it is a blood thinner, you may bruise more easily or if you combine a high garlic intake with blood thinners, you run the risk of severe bleeding.

Randi Upshaw is a Certified Athletic Trainer who loves health and fitness and uses writing to share it with others.  Like what she writes?  Then check out

photo: Donovan Govan

Cooking With Oregano

Oregano is a flavorful, highly anti-oxidant, perennial herb which is used in a wide variety of cuisines including Italian, Turkish, Lebanese, Greek, and Latin American. Related to the mint familiy, it has a distinctive aroma and taste; the flavor is stronger when it is dried rather than fresh. Oregano gained popularity in the United States after World War II when returning soldiers came back with a taste for it.

If you love to create your own dishes, you will discover that oregano goes well with pizza, lamb, tomato sauces, and cruciform vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and zucchini. It blends well with other herb including basil, dried onions, garlic, pepper, parsley, sage, and thyme.

Although oregano is typically dried and sold in jars at grocery stores, it can be purchased fresh or grown in a home garden. Before buying fresh oregano, ensure that it is not showing signs of wilt. Fresh oregano can be kept fresh if it is placed in a plastic bag filled with air and then put in the crisper section of your refrigerator

Mexican oregano, related to vervain, rather than mint, is a distant relative of traditional oregano.  Known also as Mexican marjoram or Mexican wild sage, it has been described by many as having a stronger flavor and somewhat sweeter taste than the common oregano.

How to Use Oregano

  • Select dried or fresh oregano; growing your own oregano is easy as the plants are hardy.
  • There are several varieties of oregano, so decide which one to use. The Italian oregano used in pizza and Italian dishes is most commonly used in American dishes. The Greek variety is often used in seafood and other dishes while the Cuban variety is often used to flavor meats, especially game.
  • Some recipes require whole leaves or crushed oregano. This however, is dependent on the preference of the chef or the other ingredients in the recipe.
  • Do not overcook oregano as this will reduce its flavor; add it to cooking as needed. 
  •  Fresh oregano can be used to flavor or season cold dishes. 

Using Fresh Oregano

When you cook with fresh oregano, you need an approach that is somewhat different from the dried herb. In addition to it’s high nutrient profile, providing vitamin K, manganese, iron, and calcium, oregano also has anti-inflammatory properties.  Research suggests that oregano has properties that can relieve the symptoms associated with diabetes and metabolic syndrome.  You will need to understand how to use its fresh form to enhance your dishes and your health.

  • Fresh oregano is not as concentrated as its dried form, so measure carefully and double or triple the amount if the recipe requires dried oregano. 
  • Dried oregano is usually used when cooking sauces and roasts, but fresh oregano is best suited for seafood or sprinkled on pasta dishes. 
  • Fresh oregano can be substituted for marjoram if necessary. 
  • It is easy to overdo dried or fresh oregano. Therefore, you need to be careful how you apply this spice when you are creating your own recipes. 
Lucas Barnes writes at Plantdex.

On My Mind Monday 6.4.12

news | photo: mconnors

It’s never the same two weeks in a row.  This is what I find interesting in the fields of health, nutrition, and holistic living.  Read what’s on my mind.

Like curry? – turmeric, one of the commonly used spices in curry, contains curcurmin.  Evidence appears to indicate that curcurmin can be supportive for conditions such as arthritis, cancer, and diabetes. Now it turns out that curcurmin may actually boost the immune system.  In addition to curries, turmeric can be used in making pickles, relishes, added to egg salad, use to flavor rice dishes, and more.  I always laugh when I go to visit a friend of mine who is from India.  Her kitchen contains a quart jar of turmeric and she goes through it at a fairly quick pace.  I have a two ounce jar and it takes me a long time to use it all.  Perhaps we all need to be considering other ways to add it to our diet.

RI to vote on banning veal crates – I’m happy to see this in the news and hope that Rhode Island will join Arizona, Colorado, California, Maine, and Michigan in outlawing this inhumane practice.  Veal is, essentially, the waste product of the dairy industry.  Not able to use male calves the farmers can instead turn them into meat.  However part of the reason veal is so pale and tender is because the calves are kept hobbled or caged and cannot walk or use their muscles.  It is also believed that many of these calves are given illegal hormones to make them grow faster, thereby making them more profitable for the farmer. Many people, when they find out how veal is raised, are horrified and choose to no longer eat it.  That is the clearest message that can be sent to the farmers.

Fast Food Mania TV show – I’m truly stunned by this t.v. concept (and not in a good way).  I wonder how hard the fast food producers had to work and how much they had to pay to get this concept on the air.  As if we don’t have enough of a challenge with obesity and fast food consumption in this country.   I get the impression that this show will not only glorify this unhealthy food, but also offer tips on how to maximize your dining experience.  Not a good idea.

Right now in my garden outside I have a fair amount of greens growing including kale, swiss chard, and Malabar spinach (Basella alba).  While malabar is different than traditional spinach due to it’s habit of climbing and the rounded thicker leaves, it’s still a spinach and so it get’s cooked like spinach.  This video from George Mateljan shows a great way to cook it.  His healthy take away tips are 1. don’t drink the water that you cook the spinach in as it is high in oxalic acid, and 2. use lemon juice on the spinach, this will help to increase the iron absorption.

George has a great book The World’s Healthiest Foods which is a wonderful reference for learning about the healthy properties of a tremendous range of foods.  It also comes packed with hundreds of delicious recipes.  This is one of those books which I believe belongs on everyone’s shelf.  Sign up for his YouTube channel and stay on top of his healthy, tasty, recipes as well