What’s the Difference Between Herbs and Spices?

Photo: Grit.com

We often hear the term “herbs and spices”. As any amateur chef knows, herbs and spices are vital ingredients in many dishes. They add flavor, aroma, color, texture and even nutrients.

But have you ever stopped for a moment to think what the difference is between the two families of food flavor enhancers?

Both spices and herbs are parts of plants (fresh or dried) that are used to enhance the flavor of foods. They’ve also been known to preserve foods, cure illness and enhance cosmetics.

The difference between the two is where they are obtained from a plant.

Herbs come from the leafy and green part of the plant.

Spices are parts of the plant other than the leafy bit such as the root, stem, bulb, bark or seeds.

Examples of herbs include basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, parsley and mint. They are usually grown in more temperate areas than spices and have great medicinal value and are also used in the preparation of cosmetic products.

Spices are usually dried before being used to season foods. Some examples are cinnamon, cloves, ginger and pepper. Unlike herbs, they are grown in more tropical countries. They’ve also been known to preserve foods and some have medicinal value, such as turmeric with its anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal properties.

Despite the above clarification, according to the American Spice Trade Association, spices are defined as “any dried plant product used primarily for seasoning purposes”. This really broadens the definition of spices, allowing it to include herbs, dehydrated veggies, spice blends and spice seeds.

Below is a table listing 5 each of herbs and spices, along with their reported nutritional/health benefits.

Herb Nutrition Spice Nutrition
Basil Rich in Vitamin A and K. Assists with combatting bowel inflammation and rheumatoid arthritis Cinnamon Lowers blood sugar levels, LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides especially in people with type 2 diabetes
Mint Helps with digestion and asthma Ginger Can stop nausea and may also relieve heartburn and bloating
Oregano Assists with inflammation Chilli Contains capsaicin which puts the heat in chilies, may lower the risk of skin and colon cancers, shown to suppress appetite and boost metabolism
Parsley Protects against rheumatoid arthritis, antioxidant-rich, fights cancer, high in vitamin C and iron. Cloves Have antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal and antiseptic properties; they are known for relieving flatulence and can actually help promote good digestion as well as metabolism
Thyme Contains the oil, thymol, especially helpful for chest and respiratory problems, also acts as an antiseptic and disinfectant. Mustard seeds Contain phytonutrient compounds that protect against cancers of the gastrointestinal tract; believed to reduce the severity of asthma


So…what’s your favorite spice or herb?

  • http://twitter.com/Miss_Ash_of_PP PerilouslyPrecocious

    Basil.  By a million miles.  And though garlic very well may be a vegetable, that is my other favorite.  Mmmm. *drool*

  • http://twitter.com/divinebread divine bread

    Rosemary! Basil! Tyme! Lemongrass! Cumin! Corriander! Anise! Ginger! Cadamon! Oh My …. I honestly cannot choose a favorite… how bout all…. And also I seriously agree with ^ Garlic is a Herb/spice all its own!! With so many super healthy powers, it should wear a cape!

  • Hdudujd

    Vanilla! It’s a spice right?

  • Allison Sullivan

    Cinnamon! I eat it daily, sometimes multiple times a day! Great post. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1717916410 Dave Kopes

    nice write up!

  • eraldo

    Cinnammon came from leaves (rolled), so it’s an herb? I think is’nt so simple to differentiate.

    • http://www.fooducate.com/blog Fooducate

      Cinnamon comes from the bark of a tree.

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  • http://twitter.com/creativebug Sandra

    Turmeric is my new favorite spice.  So many benefits, but originally became interested in using it after I learned it helped with seasonal allergies.  I brown meat with it or add it to dishes for me & the kiddos.

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  • http://yourgardeningfriend.com Your Gardening Friend

    Great post!  I was wondering this very thing (i.e. what the difference is between the two).


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  • http://www.facebook.com/andrealeenaomi Andrea Abay-Abay

    Currently my favorite spice is Cinnamon too. Not a lot of people know that the majority of the Cinnamon that is sold in North America is not real cinnamon but comes from a different plant called Cinnamomum cassia, also known as Chinese cinnamon. Real cinnamon is “ceylon” cinnamon and usually much pricer.

    Both cinnamon types are antimicrobial, inhibit the growth of fungi and yeast, and regulate blood sugar, and I don’t think I’ve gone a day this year without having a little in my daily intake of food!

    If you are looking for an organic source of herbs and spices online try http://www.maisonterre.net. Unfortunately they don’t carry the Ceylon but they have a ton of other herbs and spices to experiment with.

    • sagara

      Cinnamon of Ceylon is endemic to Sri Lanka. If you can travel to Sri Lanka, You can see cinnamon cultivation and processing practices A-Z.

      Cinnamon tea also introduced to the market today.

      further details…http://www.srilankanspices.com/AH.html

  • http://www.bowenboston.com/ Jonathan Bowen

    My head almost exploded after reading “here” three words into the blog post.

    • http://www.fooducate.com/ Fooducate

      Fixed. thanks!

  • Audrey

    How do you see the spice column when reading on an iPhone?

  • mema

    thank you so much

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  • Leahiles

    All of them. Seriously. I can bring to mind a lot of them, but I can’t think of a one that I don’t love. But my *latest* favorite is caraway after discovering how delicious turkey on rye with melted swiss cheese is. :-)

  • Viola

    Corriander. Loove it.

  • Viola

    I am doing research on a niche for a website. I want to connect herbs and spices to Depression-specifically baby birth sadness. Any suggestions? Thanks.

    • blaze68

      “Baby birth sadness”?

      Did you mean to say ‘Post Partum depression’?