Herbs and spices are a common part of everyday life, especially those who spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Although we use the words ‘herbs’ and ‘spices’ frequently, we have become accustomed to lumping the two together into one category. We may be looking for rosemary in the ‘spice aisle’ of a grocery store or grabbing thyme from our ‘spice cabinet’ at home. Although the difference between an herb and a spice is quite simple, it’s often something that isn’t thought about!
So what is the difference between an herb and a spice?
Both spices and herbs come from plants, but they are actually from different parts of the plant. Herbs come from the leafy green parts of a plant, while spices come from parts of the plant that aren’t leafy – including seeds, root, bark, stem, fruit or flower. In some cases, one plant can be the source of both spices and herbs, such as cilantro. ‘Cilantro’ is the leafy bit of the plant, while ‘coriander’ refers to the seed. The leafy part of dill is an herb, while dill seeds become a spice.
Herbs can be fresh, dried, powdered or whole. A meal can incorporate a leaf of basil or a sprig of rosemary right from the plant! Dried or crushed parts of plants make up spices. You can’t take cinnamon bark or the seed of a nutmeg tree and expect to add it to your cooking without drying or processing it.
Herbs and spices typically grow in different climates and regions. Herbs grow in temperate regions, especially in the wild throughout North America. On the other hand, spices tend to originate in tropical or subtropical areas of the world, and you would be hard-pressed to find wild turmeric or saffron growing throughout the States. 1
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Are herbs and spices used differently in cooking?
Herbs have a more delicate flavor than spices in cooking. Whether they are fresh or dried, they retain their flavor better if you add them towards the end of cooking. Many people prefer to add herbs only once a meal is off the heat! Spices, on the other hand, have a more robust flavor and commonly add color to a meal. They are able to withstand more heat and longer cooking times, so many people add them at the beginning of the cooking process.
A brief history of herbs and spices for medicinal use
Both herbs and spices offer a wide variety of health benefits. Many people have used both throughout history to treat various ailments. The first written record of using plants for medicinal purposes dates back over 5000 years ago! The Sumerians in Ancient Mesopotamia wrote this record on clay tablets in what is now modern-day Iraq. Around 1500 BC, the Ancient Egyptians wrote the Ebers Papyrus, which documented over 850 different medicinal properties of herbs and spices. This text claimed that basil was great for heart health, caraway could be used to ease flatulence and freshen the breath, and dill was a wonderful laxative. It also claimed that garlic was great for the digestive system, myrrh could ease headaches, and thyme was a pain reliever! Some modern herbal remedies still use the knowledge of these properties today!
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The popularity of herbs and spices used for medicinal purposes began to spread throughout the world. Hippocrates is famously quoted saying “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. In The Complicated Body, written by Hippocrates, he writes about the medicinal properties of willow bark and how it could be used to ease pain and reduce fevers. In the 1800s, scientists began to use the active compounds from willow bark to create aspirin!
A brief history continued
The widespread popularity of herbalism began between the 15th and 17th centuries. Nicholas Culpeper was a botanist, herbalist, astrologer and physician who is most well-known for his book The English Physician (better known as The Complete Herbal). Although this book included ‘astrological herbalism’ and a lot of other information that has been written off as nonsense, he documented hundreds of medicinal herbs and their properties. Although he was widely scorned by the medical community, he was known as the people’s herbalist as he aimed to bring herbal medicine to poorer communities and make the knowledge available to all.
In the later half of the 19th century, a group of physicians known as Eclectics began to use herbal medicines in conjunction with physical therapy and other treatments to treat their patients. This form of medicine was much more effective than the treatments of the time, which included bloodletting and purging.
In 1904, the Council on Medical Education was formed. This set rigorous standards for medical education and put an end to many of the herbal practices that were common to the time. Many natural or homeopathic schools were forced to shut down or merge with larger universities that taught a more modern, scientific way of healing.
Nowadays, herbalism has once again gained in popularity and is becoming more widely accepted as a form of treatment for many ailments. A wide variety of herbs and spices are used every day to treat symptoms and promote general well-being. 2
The use of herbs and spices in culinary practices, medicinal uses, and religious ceremonies dates back thousands of years. Although the widespread use of herbs and spices for medicinal purposes has been overshadowed by larger pharmaceutical companies, many people are going back to their roots and looking towards plants to ease their symptoms. Whether you’re sprinkling fresh basil onto a pasta dish or using turmeric to reduce inflammation, herbs and spices are an important part of our everyday lives.
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