The Difference Between Herbs and Spices
Recently I read an email from one of my favorite functional nutritionists. She was sharing about her love for spices, ginger in particular (I thought that was ironic, seeing how I had just written an article about ginger!). Within the email this nutritionist claimed the health benefits of spices far surpass even those of herbs.
Reading her words brought to mind a question I had wondered about years ago: what is the difference between an herb and a spice?
Here’s the thing: If you reference a current dictionary definition of “herb” and “spice” you’ll find yourself running in circles trying to classify the terms.
Ask me how I know.
Instead, it’s helpful to consider the etymology of these two words. Doing so makes it a whole lot easier to confidently use them in the presence of any phytogrammarian friends.
I’m sure you have some.
Once upon a time there was the word “wort”. This word made everything a whole lot easier because it encompassed anything plant – root, herb, spice, twig – you name it.
But around the 13th century the terms “herb” and “spice” made their debut:
An herb traditionally became known as a non-woody plant (a.k.a. not a shrub or tree), especially a leafy plant used for food.
A spice was defined as something added to enhance the flavor; a plant substance aromatic or pungent to the taste. (Source)
In the world of herbalism, the pungent taste indicates high concentrations of aromatic, volatile oils. And that’s just what gives a spice its pizazz – the volatile (essential) oil.
As a side note, that’s also why certain individuals with digestive disturbances have a hard time with spices like black pepper, cloves and the like. Ingesting those spices can wreak havoc on the lining of an unhealthy digestive tract. Along those lines, for those of you who love essential oils, have you considered whether ingesting essential oils is really safe?
The volatile oils in plants are located in specific parts, namely the roots, bark, seeds and fruit. Given this, it makes sense then that the more common definition of spice refers to those specific plant parts, while the widely-held definition of herb refers primarily to the softer portions of the plant such as the leaves, which have much less concentrations of oil.
And get this…
Some plants can be both an herb and a spice! Coriander, dill and fenugreek offer their leaves for wonderful medicinal and culinary purposes (in their function as herbs), and their seeds also are used (in their function as a spice).
This brings me back to the email in my inbox; the one from my nutritionist friend who claims the benefits of spices surpass even those of herbs. Is that true?
Pound for pound I think she has a point. It all comes back to those volatile oils and their incredible potency. And the spices are full of it!
But the reality is we don’t consume large amounts of spices like we do herbs. It’s too difficult.
Case in point, I made my dad a concentrated ginger infusion the other day to ward off a migraine and he barely choked down two sips before he was gasping for breath. He made it nearly through the cup but not without several grimaces. Yes, his migraine left, but I doubt he’ll drink a strong cup of ginger tea again for the fun of it!
I think both spices and herbs play an equally valuable role in our pursuit of health and wellness… but I’ll cling to herbs for most of my health needs and leave spices to carry out their fragrant role in my kitchen.