The World's Healthiest Foods

Herbs—Packed with Powerful Antioxidants—Oregano Ranks Highest

Recent studies by researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture reveal that common herbs are loaded with antioxidants. Antioxidants are critical for good health. They include a wide variety of plant-derived compounds that prevent cellular damage caused by an excess of free radicals, corrosive molecules produced during normal metabolic processes and also generated by many external sources including pesticides, smoking and exhaust fumes. Free radicals have been implicated as major contributing factors in the development of virtually all chronic and aging-related diseases. By neutralizing free radicals, antioxidants help prevent cancer, heart disease and stroke, research indicates.

Fruits and vegetables have long been recognized as rich sources of antioxidant compounds. Now, researchers have begun to study herbs for their potential health benefits. The use of herbs, which typically come from plant leaves, both to flavor foods and treat illness dates back to the beginnings of recorded history.

Now, science is revealing the phytochemical activity that supports the ages-old use of herbs to promote health. Modern biochemical assays show that herbs are a concentrated source of powerful antioxidants. In an effort to identify potential new natural antioxidants, researchers measured and compared the antioxidant properties of numerous medicinal and culinary herbs, all of which were grown under the same conditions at the US National Arboretum in Washington, DC.

Not only was the antioxidant activity of some herbs higher than that reported for vitamin E, these herbs even surpassed foods well-known for their antioxidant content such as vegetables, berries and other fruits. Oregano emerged the clear winner. Three different types of oregano -- Mexican, Italian and Greek -- scored the highest in antioxidant activity of all the herbs tested. Oregano had 3 to 20 times higher antioxidant activity than the other herbs studied.

On a per gram fresh weight basis, oregano and other herbs ranked even higher in antioxidant activity than fruits and vegetables known to be high in antioxidants. For example, oregano demonstrated 42 times more antioxidant activity than apples, 30 times more than potatoes, 12 times more than oranges and 4 times more than blueberries. Just one tablespoon of fresh oregano was found to contain the same antioxidant activity as a medium-sized apple. Oregano was even found to have higher antioxidant potential than garlic! The most active phenol component in the herbs with the highest antioxidant activity, particularly oregano, was rosmarinic acid, a strong antioxidant, which, as its name suggests, is also found in rosemary.

The bottomline? In addition to adding flavorful nuance and zest to meals, herbs can provide significant health benefits when included in a balanced diet. In addition to oregano, a number of other herbs also pack a significant antioxidant punch. Among the more familiar, ranked in order, are dill, garden thyme, rosemary and peppermint. Less familiar herbs with comparable antioxidant-power include rose geranium, sweet bay, purple amaranth, winter savory and Vietnamese coriander.

Researchers suggest that people use herbs for flavoring instead of salt and artificial chemical additives. In general, fresh herbs and spices contain higher antioxidant levels than their processed counterparts. For example, fresh garlic provides 150% more antioxidant activity than dry garlic powder.

Inspired to increase your consumption of these herbal antioxidant powerhouses? To learn more about these flavorful members of the World’s Healthiest Foods, simply click on any of the following links: oregano, dill, thyme, rosemary, peppermint,coriander.

Want suggestions for ways to enjoy these herbs more frequently as part of your healthy way of eating? For a list of the World’s Healthiest Foods’ recipes containing the herbs listed above, click on the Recipe Assistant, select the herb on the healthy foods list, and click on the Submit button. A list containing links to all the World's Healthiest Foods' recipes containing the herb selected will appear immediately below.


Zheng W, Wang SY. Antioxidant activity and phenolic compounds in selected herbs. J Agric Food Chem 2001 Nov;49(11):5165-70; J Agric Food Chem 2002;49:5165-5170.

Martinez-Tome M, Jimenez AM, Ruggieri S, Frega N, Strabbioli R, Murcia MA. Antioxidant properties of Mediterranean spices compared with common food additives. J Food Prot 2001 Sep;64(9):1412-9

This page was updated on: 2002-04-29 05:52:50
© 2002 The George Mateljan Foundation