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Cooking with Basil: Health Benefits, Tips, and Recipes

If you are familiar with Italian cuisine, then chances are you have come into contact with basil, an herb in the same family as peppermint.  However, basil is so much more than the spice in your pesto.  Did you know that there are more than forty varieties of basil?  The variety that most people are familiar with, which is the basil used in Mediterranean cuisine, is sweet basil.  Yet, other popular basil varieties include asian basil, thai basil, lemon basil, and holy basil, to name a few.

Health Benefits

Basil is not only a flavor booster for your dishes, but also offers some incredible health benefits, most of which are related to its powerful antioxidants and volatile oils.  While the research on all the benefits of basil are still premature, current studies suggest that basil can help combat viruses, bacteria, and chronic diseases.

Antimicrobial Properties – Basil has been shown to be a strong antimicrobial.  Basil’s volatile oils, which include estragole, linalool, cineole, eugenol, sabinene, myrcene, and limonene, have been shown to halt the growth of harmful bacteria.  Basil’s oils have even been found to stop the growth of antibiotic resistant microbes, which are becoming a problem with the overuse of antibiotics.

Anti-inflammatory Properties – One of the volatile oils found in basil, called eugenol, has been discovered to be a powerful treatment for inflammation.  In fact, this oil works in the same manner as over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications like aspirin and ibuprofen, by blocking the enzyme COX, which is responsible for both inflammation and pain.  Therefore, basil can provide relief for those suffering from arthritis or inflammatory bowel disorders.

Chronic Disease Prevention – Basil has been shown to help prevent both heart disease and diabetes.  With regard to heart disease, basil has been shown to lower blood triglycerides and cholesterol levels.  Sweet basil has also been found to block the formation of blood clots, which could prevent heart attacks and strokes.  Basil is also a good source of beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant that is converted in the body to vitamin A and is known to prevent cholesterol from building up in arteries.  In terms of diabetes prevention, basil extracts, especially those found in holy basil, have been shown to lower blood glucose levels in both laboratory animals and diabetic individuals.

Anti-cancer Properties – Basil is full of antioxidants, compounds that fight free-radicals and are believed to help prevent cancer.  The majority of basil’s antioxidants are compounds called flavonoids, which are powerful antioxidants that play a large role in protecting cells from damage and are a large factor in basil’s anti-cancer effects.

Provides Essential Nutrients – Basil is a good source of vitamin K, iron, calcium, vitamin A, manganese, magnesium, vitamin C, and potassium.

Tips

1. Most recipes calling for basil refer to sweet basil.
2.  Add basil to your salad dressings.  Drizzling a basil concoction on your greens will kill any bacteria that may be lurking on them.
3.  Use fresh basil whenever possible.  Most of the antioxidants and essential oils, which provide basil’s health benefits, are lost during the drying process.
4.  Since the essential oils found in basil are extremely volatile, it is best to add it towards the end of the cooking process to ensure maximum flavor and benefits.
5.  Use sweet basil in pasta sauces, in salads, and to top off vegetables.  Use thai basil for curries and stir fries.
6.  Basil tea is can be used to relieve nausea.  This tea can easily be made by infusing chopped basil leaves in boiling water for 8 minutes.
7.  Basil can last for several years in a pot indoors in a windowsill.
8.  Basil can be bought fresh and stored in the freezer or for a week in the refrigerator wrapped in a damp paper towel.

Recipes

Dips and Spread

Entrées

Image Source: cookbookman17/Flickr

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