Although herbs have been central in the journey to modern-day medicine, nowadays, they are known more for their culinary uses than their medicinal uses. Even then, their use has diminished as ready-made, and processed foods became more popular. Thankfully, in recent years, herbs have made their way back into our kitchens and remedies. But to fully understand how essential they have been, we need to go into their history a little.
It isn’t easy to pinpoint what herbs and how they were used in the early days, as knowledge was mainly passed down verbally. From around 2000 B.C., records were sporadic and limited but always focused on their medicinal uses, preparation and how to administer them.
In addition to their medicinal uses, herbs were also used in industry as dyes and cleaning agents, and the Egyptians used them for embalming, so we can agree they were pretty prominent in history, even if it wasn’t clearly documented.
As time went by, trade routes grew, and lands were conquered, as did the proliferation of herbs. Romans would carry bags of seeds wherever they went to ensure they always had a supply. Those herbs would then become naturalised in that region.
By 400 B.C. Aristotle (Father of Medicine) was already teaching his students the use of herbs in pain management and curing some diseases. A few hundred years later, Dioscorides (Greek physician) wrote Materia Medica, which documented over 500 plants and herbs and their medicinal properties.
Herbs and their use were a worldwide phenomenon. Records show Native Americans introducing settlers to indigenous herbs, and Christian monasteries would have ‘Physik’ gardens that supplied apothecaries. Early American Shakers became known as professional herbalists. To this day, ethnobotany continues to thrive in most cultures worldwide but most notably in China, India, Africa and Iran.
Looking at history, you may wonder why herbs aren’t a more significant component of the modern culinary and medicinal world. What changed? Two important factors influence the trajectory of herbs.
1. Industrial Revolution
The first was the Industrial Revolution; with it came factories and the centralisation of resources. People were flocking to cities and living in tiny homes with little space for homegrown herbs. In countries that were less industrialised, the growing of herbs remained but to a lesser degree. But there was an even bigger change afoot.
The use and popularity of herbs were shifting to a culinary focus, and this was largely thanks to the second factor.
2. Scientific Advances
Scientists were firstly able to isolate compounds from plants. This allowed for the development of medicine with more exact and measurable doses. Further advances enabled scientists to synthesize these compounds and make not only drugs but flavourings and preservatives as well. Herbs weren’t as necessary, and scientists were no longer at the whim of supply and demand or crops being available and reliable; they could make their own compounds.
Herbs in the Modern World
By the early 20th century, herbs were considered more of a niche product with a primary focus on culinary uses and essential oils. Many herbs went from being used in tinctures, decoctions or infusions to grown for their scent or ornamental value, while others disappeared or were relegated to being a weed.
Over the years, the safety and healthiness of synthetic herb flavours, aromas and medicines have been fiercely debated. Some people are completely averse, others tolerant, and a growing number are exploring the whole natural source of herbs.
Companies recognise this trend, and you may have noticed ingredients that are recognised as botanical bio-preservatives showing up on ingredient lists, I.e. Rosemary Extract or essential oils. So yes, herbs are coming back. In mainstream industry, they remain a big part of the chemical and culinary industry. In the health and wellness industry, herbs and their traditional uses and applications are also making a strong comeback.
There are now small planters that can be managed with your smartphone and ensure a small but steady supply of herbs in your very own home, no matter how small. Social media is flooded with recipes and how-tos for growing and using herbs. Generally, the public is far more open to exploring herbs at the very least for the nutritional value-add to meals, and some are exploring their medicinal properties a little deeper.
Herbs are back on the menu, and that’s in and of itself a great thing.
Are they worth the hype?
While the answer to this question is very much up to the individual, there are some factors we need to take into account.
It’s not as outdated as you think.
As I mention in my blog on Spice Essentials, there are many people in the world that rely heavily on traditional herbal medicines. WHO (World Health Organisation) estimate nearly 75% of the world’s population.
Perhaps some of the remedies are not as immediate or potent as modern-day medication, but the efficacy of herbal remedies cannot be dismissed.
Western medicine is expensive.
Modern or western medicine has astronomical research and development costs which make many new drugs unaffordable to the everyday person. This is part of the reason for the recent upsurge in rediscovering herbal and traditional healing.
Herbs are still the source.
Pharmaceutical and chemical companies still study herbs as a source for new drugs. As mentioned earlier, many plants have been relegated to being called a weed or simply ornamental and are being rediscovered or investigated for their medicinal properties.
Everyday Herbs, Everyday Health
The internet provides us with a plethora of information and advice on what and how to use when it comes to herbal remedies. Whom you choose to listen to and how you choose to use the information is up to you. However, it is always prudent to consult with your primary medical provider first. You might think this is just a perfunctory warning, but there are interactions with medications and treatments that need to be considered. In addition to this, herbal remedies are not subject to stringent regulations like modern medicine, so you might not be aware of what exactly you have a sensitivity to or not.
Using herbs on a medicinal level requires a more precise and deliberate application of the specific qualities of a herb. This does not mean they are void of efficacy when used in our day-to-day diets. Including herbs in your diet is a great way of diversifying and adding healthful whole foods into your meal rotations. They often have higher concentrations of nutrients than their vegetable companions. The cumulative effect of eating vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices on a regular basis is that of crowding out low nutrient highly processed foods. You increase your intake of phytonutrients and have the added bonus of delicious and tasty food.
If you are new to using herbs and want to start, you are in luck. They are far less intimidating to use than spices and are easily added to dishes both raw and cooked. (Read my blog on Spices – how to select, store, and use them if you are nervous about spices).
Many of the recipes available in the Free Stuff section use herbs, and there are a few more goodies being added, so be sure to have a look around… and consider eating that garnish.
- Murray, Michael T., et al. “10.” The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods, Atria Books, New York, NY, 2005, pp. 463–524.
- Swerdlow, Joel L., and Lynn Johnson. Nature’s Medicine Plants That Heal. National Geographic Society, 2000.
- Draughon, Ann F. “Use of Botanicals as Biopreservatives in Foods.” IFT.org, Institute of Food Technologists, 1 Feb. 2004, https://www.ift.org/news-and-publications/food-technology-magazine/issues/2004/february/features/use-of-botanicals-as-biopreservatives-in-foods.
- Bhat, Rajeev, et al. “Application of Botanicals as Natural Preservatives in Food.” 16 Jan. 2012, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/9781119962045.ch24.
- Pan, Si-Yuan et al. “Historical perspective of traditional indigenous medical practices: the current renaissance and conservation of herbal resources.” Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM vol. 2014 (2014): 525340. doi:10.1155/2014/525340