The Power of Basil
Basil isn't just a favorite herb and essential ingredient in Italian, Thai, Vietnamese and Laotian cooking, it was once elevated to the status of icon of hospitality in India and a symbol of love in Italy. It was even considered sacred and noble by the Greeks, whose word for royal, basilikohn, gave us the name basil. Now basil is finding a new identity as a health food as scientists have discovered its powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties as well as its high vitamin and mineral content.
Basil's primary health benefits stem from two main sources: flavonoids and volatile oils. The flavonoids in basil act primarily on the cellular level, protecting cell structures and chromosomes from radiation and oxygen-based damage, while the volatile oils act as a powerful anti-bacterial.
A study published in the February 2004 issue of Food Microbiology showed that washing fruits and vegetables with a solution containing just 1 percent basil oil lowered the number of infectious bacteria present on the produce below a detectable level. Other studies have proven basil's ability to restrict the growth of many common bacteria, including Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, E. Coli, Yersinia enterocolitica and Enterococcus (the cause of urinary tract infections and meningitis) and Pseudomonas (often the source of household food spoiling and infections). Many of these bacteria have developed resistance to antibiotics, making resulting infections difficult to treat. Experts believe that adding basil to foods, particularly raw dishes such as salads, might help prevent bacterial infection.
People who suffer from inflammatory disorders such as arthritis and inflammatory bowel conditions may benefit from adding a little basil to their diet. The eugenol component found in basil's volatile oils blocks the activity of an enzyme called cyclooxygenase (COX), the same enzyme blocked by non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen.
Basil contains a high concentration of beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant. This so-called "pro-vitamin A" protects the epithelium (the lining of the blood vessels and other body structures) from free-radical damage and prevents free radicals from oxidizing cholesterol in the blood stream, which can cause a heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular problems. It can also help ward off asthma, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis while protecting cells from further damage.
Basil is a great source of essential vitamins and minerals, including magnesium which promotes cardiovascular health, improves blood flow and lowers the risk of irregular heart rhythms or spasms of the blood vessels. It is also a good source of vitamins C and K, iron, calcium, and potassium.
With more than 60 varieties of this nutritious herb, it may be hard to decide which one to choose. Each variety of basil has its own subtle flavor that will compliment different dishes, such as sweet basil's bright and pungent flavor. Other varieties have unique flavors reflected in their names, such as lemon basil, anise basil and cinnamon basil. Fresh basil is more flavorful than dried. Choose basil that is a vibrant, deep green color, free from spots or yellowing.
The best way to store basil is up for debate. Some sources say you should store basil in the refrigerator, wrapped in a slightly damp paper towel or freeze it in an air tight container. However, this can turn the leaves black, so it is better to keep the stems in a glass of water at room temperature.
Basil is a great addition to any dish, particularly those using tomatoes. Adding a few raw basil leaves to a tomato sandwich can be a tasty snack, while fresh chopped basil, garlic and olive oil can make a dairy-free variety of pesto. Or for a Thai twist, add a few sprigs of basil to your favorite stir-fry. When cooking basil, it is best to add it near the end to maintain its flavor and nutrients.