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Herbs Offer Health and Flavor

Recent studies have shown that kitchen standbys like oregano, rosemary and ginger contain the same cancer-fighting phytochemicals that vegetables do.

August 21, 2002

<bt>Eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables for their cancer-preventing powers as well as for good nutrition has become conventional wisdom. Meanwhile, at the International Research Conference on Food, Nutrition and Cancer in Washington, D.C., herbs and spices were singled out because they, too, contain compounds that are cancer-preventative.

At the International Research Conference on Food, Nutrition and Cancer, held at the Omni Sheraton Hotel in D.C. recently, several hundred researchers, dietitians, clinicians and health professionals came together to hear the latest information. While all of the presentations focused on the link between food and cancer, it was Melanie Polk, R.D., the American Institute for Cancer Research's (AICR) director of nutrition education, who discussed the recent findings on common herbs and spices.

The AICR, which was founded in 1982, specifically supports research in the role of diet and nutrition in the prevention and treatment of cancer, providing newsletters, brochures and featured recipes for anyone who is interested. While researchers have been in agreement that fruits and vegetables are cancer-fighting , Polk has taken a closer look at foods that have been largely thought of as merely flavor enhancers. Focusing on the four seasonings oregano, rosemary, turmeric and ginger, she pointed out that these spices and herbs contain strong phytochemicals (plant substances) that can protect against many types of cancers.

"THE CANCER-PROTECTIVE antioxidant power of herbs and spices is at least as great as that of fruits and vegetables. That capacity, along with their ability to enrich and enliven the flavor of foods, makes them highly valuable staples in the kitchen," said Polk in a recent news release.

This statement is good news for many people, as cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States, exceeded only by heart disease, according to The National Cancer Institute. The Institute also states that for the majority of Americans who do not use tobacco products, dietary choices and physical activity are the most important modifiable determinants of cancer risk..

Each of these four seasonings contains specific phytochemicals that are preventative for specific types of cancer. Polk says that these seasonings, especially in their fresh form, "are especially helpful in creating flavor with more depth and complexity. That greater intensity of taste allows us to cut down the amount of salt we use, another important health consideration."

Oregano contains quercetin, which is protective against ovarian and breast cancer. Having a slightly pungent taste, it holds up well in highly seasoned dishes, while it also complements poultry, fish and vegetables. While oregano is commonly used on pizza, it is also present in Mediterranean and Latin American cuisines.

Rosemary is rich in carnosol, which in studies has been found to detoxify substances that can initiate the breast-cancer process. This seasoning can be used in a wide variety of dishes such as soups and vegetables and with many meats, such as pork and lamb. It is also widely used in Greek and Italian cuisines.

TURMERIC CONTAINS the compound curcumin, which gives it its yellow color and protects against cancers of the skin, mouth and colon. Like oregano, turmeric too has a highly pungent taste and is often used for its color as well as its flavor. Curry, Caribbean and North African cuisine contain turmeric.

Fresh ginger contains gingerol and when dried forms zingerone, both of which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, and as a result may be a cancer preventative. Fresh ginger is primarily used in Asian cooking, often in salads, soups and entrées, while dried ginger is most often used in sweet baked goods or other desserts.

While such news is welcomed in cancer research, it is still in the preliminary stages of testing. Dawn Novak, a local nurse in Fairfax, says that "most physicians I work with are more traditional and usually do not recommend certain types of food for patients to help with specific problems. Professionally, news like this is intriguing, but at the same time there is so much out there that needs to be researched before doctors can start seriously recommending certain foods."

Sarah Booth, a Fairfax County resident who is being treated for cancer, had a similar response. "If I were to seriously consider these findings, I would definitely have to do research on my own, but I would always check with my doctor first. You hear lots of stories and advice from people, and you really have to sort through it all on your own. However, I do think this type of research is great, and since these things are good for you anyway, why not?"