Several commonly used culinary herbs have been identified by the National Cancer Institute as possessing compounds that protect us against cancer. These “defensive” herbs include those belonging to the onion, ginger, mint, and parsley families, as well as flax. Use them regularly to flavor soups, stews, sauces, dips, salad dressings, entrées, vegetables, and stir-fry dishes.
They contain a diversity of active phytochemicals (such as flavonoids, terpenoids, phthalides, and sulfur compounds) that can produce a serious punch, combating the proliferation of cancer cells.
Garlic and Onions
A recent study revealed that the risk of prostate cancer was 44 percent lower in those using garlic more than once per week. In China persons with the highest intake of garlic, onions, and leeks had a risk of stomach cancer that was 40 percent lower than that of those with the lowest intake. In the Iowa Woman’s Health Study the highest consumption of garlic was associated with a 32 percent reduced risk of colon cancer.
The antitumor property of garlic is a result of its diverse content of organic sulfides, as well as other health-promoting compounds such as flavonoids, phenolic acids, phytosterols, and saponins. Garlic’s inhibition of tumor growth seems to be effective only when the tumor is small. More research is needed to determine the exact quantity of garlic needed to minimize cancer risk.
Studies in Greece have shown that a high consumption of onions, garlic, and other allium (bulbous) herbs protects against stomach cancer. A Dutch scientific investigation also revealed that stomach cancer occurrence in those consuming at least one half an onion a day was about 50 percent lower than in persons consuming no onions.
Turmeric and Ginger
Turmeric offers a rich yellow color when added to foods such as rice and tofu dishes. It also flavors soups. Turmeric’s beautiful hue comes from curcumin, a bright-yellow phenolic pigment that’s an even more powerful antioxidant than vitamin E. Curcumin boasts the ability to suppress the growth of certain cancers in the stomach, breast, colon, lung, and skin.
Dried ginger root offers a rich package of gingerols-phenolic antioxidants that possess pronounced anti-inflammatory activity-that inhibit various cancers. Ginger also contains curcumin, which assists in the elimination of cancer-causing substances from the body. A teaspoon of ginger powder every day is a useful and safe addition to any diet. Pieces of ginger can be added to fruit salads, muffins, and other bakery products.
Flaxseed flour is finding its way into more and more breads, cereals, and bakery products. It not only contributes a pleasant nutty flavor but increases the nutri-tional and health benefits of the final product. Some people enjoy a teaspoon or two of flaxseed flour or ground flaxseeds sprinkled on their morning cereal.
Animal studies have shown that flaxseed in the diet can reduce the incidence of breast tumors by 40 percent, and the tumor size of chemically induced cancers by about 50 percent. The cancer-protective properties of flaxseed are believed to result from their very high level of lignans. Lignan metabolites bind to estrogen receptors and thereby inhibit the growth of estrogen- stimulated breast cancers.
Members of the Parsley Family
Cilantro is a great addition to any tomato and lettuce salad, while ground cumin seed brings zest in the preparation of hummus. A sprig of parsley adds color and flavor to soups or vegetable dishes. Fennel finds value in vegetable preparations, while dill is used with success to flavor cucumbers and potato salad. Caraway seeds pep up bakery products and stewed fruits, while coriander seed adds richness to curry powders and pickles.
Parsley family herbs provide a good source of phthalides, coumarins, terpenoids, polyacetylenes, and other phytochemicals-many of which have cancer-preventive properties. These beneficial substances block metabolic pathways associated with the development of cancer, or induce enzymes that help metabolize and eliminate carcinogens.
Mints and Ginseng
Terpenoids, the compounds responsible for the flavors of mints (basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, spearmint) and other common herbs, suppress the growth of tumors and decrease the number of tumors produced. For example, rosemary and sage are rich in ursolic acid and a variety of diterpenoids that inhibit cancer cells from growing.
In a large study in Korea, the incidence of human cancer was seen to steadily decrease within the length of time Asian ginseng was used. Those who had taken ginseng for one year had 36 percent less cancer than nonusers, while those who used ginseng for five or more years enjoyed 69 percent less cancer. In addition, those who’d eaten ginseng less than 50 times in their life had 45 percent less cancer, while those who’d used ginseng more than 500 times in their life boasted 72 percent less cancer! Ginseng extract and powder were found to be more effective than fresh sliced ginseng or ginseng tea in reducing the risk of cancer.
Clearly, how we season our food influences our health. An excess of salt and high-fat dressings may tickle our taste buds, but they also increase our risk of cardiovascular disease. Culinary herbs bring the same satisfaction while providing a measure of protection against our most dangerous foe.
Winston Craig, Ph.D., R.D., is professor of nutrition at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.