Updated: December 08, 2016

By Julie Upton

A pinch here and a dash there may be one of the best ways to improve your health.

Herbs and spices have been grown and cultivated for thousands of years—as far back as 5,000 BC—and have been used for their medicinal benefits since they were first cultivated.

Today, research shows that these culinary treasures do, in fact, provide protection against certain diseases with their antioxidant punch and can improve our diet by enhancing flavor without any extra calories, fat, sugar, or sodium.

The words herb and spice are often used interchangeably, but the two are botanically different. Herbs are generally considered to be the leafy part of the plant, while spices are any other part of the plant, like the buds (cloves), bark (cinnamon), roots (ginger), berries (peppercorns), and aromatic seeds (cumin).

Small amounts = big health benefits
A recent study that analyzed the antioxidant capacity of more than 1,000 foods in the U.S. food supply found that many herbs and spices provide more antioxidants than other foods.

In fact, of all the foods, cloves, ground oregano, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, basil, parsley, mustard, and curry ranked among the top 50 most concentrated antioxidant powerhouses.

Herbs and spices may also offer additional beneficial effects when combined with other foods. Studies show that when you add herbs and spices to other plant-based foods, such as tomatoes or whole grains, the health payoff is greater than when these foods are eaten without herbs or spices.

Five ways I spice up my life
1.Ground cinnamon: I use this in oatmeal and on top of lattes, and also sprinkle it on fruit with Greek yogurt.
2.Cilantro: I chop fresh cilantro into most of my dinner salads.
3.Ginger: I use grated or ground ginger in stir-fry dishes, as part of Asian marinades, and with fruit-based desserts.
4.Garlic: I add it to salad dressings and pasta dishes.
5.Fresh basil: I grow this herb and use it in salads and pasta dishes.

For more simple suggestions, read our Beginner's Guide to Herbs and Spices.