A sage plant

Loading up on vegetables and fruit is good for you, but there’s another nutritional powerhouse you should keep on hand in your kitchen: herbs.

Whether fresh or dried, these fragrant botanicals not only enhance the flavor of food—which can be appealing when appetites wane or taste buds dull—but may help you cut back on salt, too.

What’s more, polyphenols—compounds that give herbs their unique flavors—have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and other healthful properties, says Dana Hunnes, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

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Polyphenols have been linked to beneficial health effects in both laboratory and human studies. Some, for instance, have been associated with lower blood sugar. But because most of the research has looked at polyphenols in isolation—not how whole herbs may work as part of a varied diet—it’s hard to conclusively state their benefits.

Either way, these botanicals are tasty, often inexpensive, and can help brighten up all sorts of meats and vegetables. Here’s how to use them.

4 Aromatic All-Star Herbs

Though much of the research on individual herbs is preliminary, these four are high in healthy compounds.

Cilantro: The cilantro (or coriander) plant contains polyphenols that may help combat hypertension. “The leaves are rich in powerful antioxidants,” says Elvira de Mejia, Ph.D., director of nutritional sciences at the University of Illinois. Cilantro, which has a pungent taste—one that some people love and others can’t stand­­—can be used in soups, stews, dressings, and even on sandwiches.

Mexican oregano: Sometimes used to make chili powder, ubiquitous in Tex-Mex cuisine, this herb has naringenin, which may have anti-cancer properties, and cirsimaritin, an antioxidant that may have anti-diabetes effects. The flavor is a little bit citrusy, distinct from European oregano.

Rosemary: Scientists have been studying the anti-cancer properties found in rosemary, which is rich in polyphenols. It grows easily indoors (and outside in some climates), so you can harvest the spiky, inch-long leaves year-round for sauces, stews, and rubs.

Sage: A member of the same family as rosemary and thyme, sage has been linked to lower blood sugar and inflammation in animal studies. Those findings may not apply to humans, but don’t let that stop you. Sage pairs well with other herbs in its family and can boost the flavors of such foods as sausages or onions.

3 Herb-Rich Sauces

One easy way to use more herbs in cooking is to create sauces that incorporate the fragrant plants, which can be used for dipping bread, tossing pasta, marinating meat, and more. Pro tip: “Bruise” fresh herbs (by hand or with a mortar and pestle) to release more of their aromatic oils.

Chimichurri: Parsley and crushed red pepper are the stars in this garlicky sauce, which is a staple in Argentina. You could also add cilantro, oregano, or mint.

Green chutney: Cilantro takes center stage in this style of chutney, but you could add all sorts of other herbs and spices, including ginger and mint.

Pesto: Traditionally made with fresh basil, this savory sauce is just as good—though it will taste quite different—when made with fresh parsley or mint.

What About Herbs in Supplement Form?

Many herbs also come in supplement form, but these pills are largely unregulated. “You don’t know if you’re getting what the label says you’re getting,” notes Hunnes. Last year, CR’s tests of two types of botanical supplements raised several concerns about potency and purity. (Plus, whole herbs probably contain many compounds we don’t yet know the benefits of, Hunnes says.)

If you’re determined to take a supplement, check the label for a seal of quality from USP, NSF, UL, or ConsumerLab. And always let your doctor know if you plan to start taking a supplement, because some may interfere with medication.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the May 2020 issue of Consumer Reports On Health