You know you need to reduce the sodium in your diet, but you’re wary of losing flavour. The key is herbs and spices – and knowing how to use them. Here’s a Top 10 guide for adding flavour to your meals (plus antioxidants that may boost brainpower, curb inflammation, guard against cancer and heart disease, and lower blood glucose in people with diabetes) without added calories, sodium or fat.
This herb has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant actions. It’s also a source of vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron. Add dried basil to pasta sauces made with tomatoes canned without added salt, sodium-reduced soups and homemade salad dressings; toss chopped fresh basil into green and tomato salads; combine basil with olive oil and garlic to make pesto for pizza, bruschetta and salmon fillets.
It’s thought to have anti-bacterial and diuretic effects. Dill is also a rich source of beta-carotene, iron and potassium. Top salmon with fresh dill before baking or grilling; add chopped dill to coleslaw and steamed carrots and green beans; mix dried dill into stews and sodium-reduced vegetable soups.
8. Cayenne pepper
Capsaicin, the compound that gives peppers their heat, has anti-inflammatory actions and (in small doses) may aid digestion. Some research hints cayenne can reduce food cravings and increase calorie-burning. Season pasta sauces, pizza, chili, stews, tuna salad and cooked vegetables with dried cayenne pepper (go easy if you’re not used to hot spice); add a dash of cayenne to hot chocolate.
Some, but not all, studies show it lowers fasting blood sugar and triglycerides in people with diabetes. It’s also thought to have antioxidant and anti-microbial properties. Add a teaspoon of ground cinnamon to oatmeal, mix into Greek yogurt and stir into French-toast batter; mix cinnamon with nut butter and add to protein shakes; add cinnamon to ground coffee before brewing.
Evidence suggests garlic may slow the progression of atherosclerosis, reduce blood pressure and guard against colorectal cancer. It also has anti-microbial and immune-boosting properties. Use garlic in stir-fries, pasta sauces and salad dressings. Sauté garlic with kale or Swiss chard. Add roasted garlic to homemade bean dips and mashed potatoes.
Ginger is thought to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial effects. Ginger is also used as a natural remedy to reduce nausea. Include chopped fresh ginger root in stir-fries, whole-grain pilafs, sautéed carrots and fruit salad; add ginger, fresh or dried, to baked winter squash and smoothies.
Oregano’s active ingredients have anti-bacterial, anti-viral and antioxidant actions. It may also help improve digestion. Use it as a seasoning for pizza, pasta sauces, stews, tomato-based soups, salad dressings and Greek salad.
Studies suggest antioxidants in rosemary help block the formation of carcinogens formed when meat is grilled or fried. Its essential oils may also ease gut spasms. Use dried rosemary in a rub (salt-free, of course) for chicken and meat; add rosemary to pasta sauces and marinades; add chopped fresh rosemary to burger and meat-loaf recipes.
This herb has antioxidant and anti-fungal properties and may help ease digestive distress. Add chopped fresh spearmint to fruit salad, berries, yogurt, smoothies and grain and pasta salads. It’s also delicious sprinkled over roasted vegetables.
This actively studied spice is reported to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-microbial and anti-cancer properties thanks to curcumin, its active ingredient. Add 1/4 teaspoon turmeric to water when cooking rice; mix into vinaigrette salad dressings; stir into olive oil and drizzle over cauliflower before roasting; add to omelettes and egg salad.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD