Basil, or Ocimum basilicum, is an ancient herb that has been around for over 4,000 years, and has been treasured for it’s medicinal and culinary attributes. It is a fragrant leafy green plant that is a member of the mint family, and has many different varieties, the most common of which include sweet basil, Thai basil, Holy basil (a variety of Thai basil) and Bush or Greek basil.
A favorite of Italian, African and Asian cuisine, most of us associate basil with the zesty boost it gives to pesto, tomato sauces, vinegars, salads and stews. Pair it with fresh sliced tomatoes and vinaigrette dressing and it’s the ‘ambrosia of summer,” (at least for me). However, if we appreciate basil only for it’s flavor, we are grossly underestimating this versatile plant that is frequently referred to as the ‘King of Herbs,’ for it’s substantial health benefits.
Basil is rich in vitamin A, vitamin K, vitamin C, magnesium, iron, potassium, and calcium. It is also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. It provides substantial levels of antioxidants, and helps to prevent damage caused by some free radicals in the liver brain and heart.
But basil isn’t simply for internal use. When basil’s oils are extracted to make an essential oil, it can be used for treating cuts, wounds, and skin infections. It also has been shown to fight acne. Basil essential oil is commonly used in aromatherapy to treat nervous tension, mental fatigue, melancholy, migraines and depression, as well as nausea and vomiting.
Basil has long served as a folk remedy for everything from poor digestion, headaches, nausea, and anxiety, to a treatment for bug bites and stings, burns and cuts and even snake bites. But it also is believed to have many other potential health benefits. We are only now beginning to scientifically study its properties and possible uses. So far animal and test-tube studies look promising for the treatment or prevention of a number of ailments and serious conditions.
Preliminary studies indicate sweet basil may be helpful in:
• Reducing memory loss associated with stress and aging;
• Reducing depression related to chronic stress;
• Reducing stroke damage and supporting recovery, whether given before or right after a stroke;
• Improving fasting blood sugar, cholesterol and triglycerides;
• Reducing blood pressure in people with hypertension;
• Relaxing blood vessels and thinning your blood, similar to aspirin;
• Treating certain diseases that involve inflammation and swelling
• Protecting against aspirin’s damage to your gut, particularly preventing ulcers;
• Preventing certain cancers, including of the breast, colon and pancreas;
• Increasing mental alertness when inhaled as aromatherapy;
• Inhibiting the growth of numerous bacteria;
• Improving food safety, such as if integrated into food packaging by manufacturers;
• Providing an alternative to antibiotics for infectious diseases, including combating antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria;
• Repelling insects, such as mosquitos and ticks.
The Wrap Up: Boost your health and treat your taste buds.
Whatever your tastes and preferences – Italian, Thai, African, or all American – basil can be a welcome addition to your kitchen, adding flavor and personality to your favorite dishes while providing an added health boost. And maybe someday, basil will not only be found in spice racks, but in the medicine cabinet, as well.
Check out this easy basil pesto recipe for a fresh and healthy addition to your menu.
2 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (about 2 ounces)
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup chopped walnuts
3 cloves of garlic, minced (about 3 teaspoons)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
A food processor or blender with pulse setting.
• Place the basil leaves and nuts into the food processor or blender and pulse several times.
• Add garlic and cheese and pulse several times more. Scrape down the sides of the food processor or blender with a rubber spatula.
• While the processor is running, slowly add olive oil in a steady small stream. (Adding the olive oil slowly while the processor is running will help it emulsify and keep it from separating.) Occasionally stop to scrape down the sides of the food processor.
• Stir in salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste.
• Toss with pasta for a quick sauce, top baked potatoes, or spread onto crackers or toasted slices of French bread.
Store remaining pesto by covering tightly with plastic wrap. Make sure the plastic is touching the top of the pesto to prevent it from coming into contact with air, and keeping it green longer.