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By Joyanna Gilmour

Basil, easily recognized by its fragrant, green, oval-shaped leaves, makes an appearance in many foods including pasta, salads, sandwiches, cocktails and more. This delicious herb is best known as the star ingredient in pesto, a thick paste made from basil, pine nuts, oil, and parmesan cheese. First cultivated in India thousands of years ago, basil has since been incorporated into a variety of ethnic cuisines from Italian to Thai.

As well as adding a fresh taste to food, this bright green herb also has beneficial health effects. Basil is a good source of vitamin K: 2 tablespoons of fresh basil contains about 20% of the daily recommended intake of this nutrient.(1) Fresh basil is also a good source of beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant that is converted to vitamin A in the body. Antioxidants are vital for keeping cells healthy and reducing the number of damaging free radical molecules in the body. Basil is also widely used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat a variety of ailments, including arthritis and other inflammatory diseases. (2)

Basil oil, extracted from the leaves of the plant, is a natural antimicrobial and can kill or inhibit the growth of bacteria.  Scientists have shown that basil oil reduces the growth of a number of food-borne bacteria species including cholera (V. cholera) and E. coli O:157:H7 (3-5).  Given recent outbreaks of food-borne illnesses, cooking with natural ingredients such as basil oil which inhibit bacterial growth is a great way to make food safer as well as tastier.  Although basil shows promise as a natural antibacterial agent, it’s important to note that most scientific studies looking at this question have been done in laboratory settings using high doses of basil extract. The effect on bacterial growth observed by home cooks using smaller amounts of basil or basil oil is not clear.

In addition to its health-promoting qualities, basil is easy to grow in a sunny windowsill or garden.  A handful of basil leaves can add a delicious flavor to a wide variety of dishes – a few ideas are listed below!

Cooking with basil:
–    Use fresh basil as a pizza topping along with tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella
–    Add fresh or dried basil to tomato-based pasta sauces
–    Add chopped fresh basil to fruit salads or green salads for a refreshing flavor twist
–    Mix with ripe tomatoes, garlic, oil, and balsamic vinegar for a quick bruschetta appetizer

Selecting basil:
–    Choose fresh basil over dried basil when possible, as fresh basil contains the basil oils.
–    Look for vibrant, green basil leaves.  Store fresh basil in the refrigerator; fresh basil can also be frozen.

References:
1.    USDA National Nutrient  Database for Standard Reference. Available at: http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/262?fg=&man=&lfacet=&count=&max=&sort=&qlookup=&offset=&format=Stats&new=.  Accessed June 1, 2012.
2.    Prakash P, Gupta N. Therapeutic uses of Ocimum sanctum Linn (Tulsi) with a note on eugenol and its pharmacological actions: a short review. Indian Journal Physiol. Pharmacol 2005; 49: 125-131
3.    Elgayyar M, Draughon FA, Golden DA, Mount JR. Antimicrobial activity of essential oils from plants against selected pathogenic and saprophytic microorganisms. J Food Prot 2001 Jul;64(7):1019-24.
4.    Biljana Bozin, Neda Mimica-Dukic, Natasa Simin, and Goran Anackov. Characterization of the Volatile Composition of Essential Oils of Some Lamiaceae Spices and the Antimicrobial and Antioxidant Activities of the Entire Oils. J Agri Food Chem 2006; 54(5): 1822-1828.
5.    Sánchez E, García S, Heredia N. Extracts of edible and medicinal plants damage membranes of Vibrio cholerae. Appl Environ Microbiol. 2010 Oct;76(20):6888-94. Epub 2010 Aug 27.

Image source: http://www.onlyfoods.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Basil-Pictures.jpg

By Jessica Currier

I’m sure most of you remember the chia pet, the clay figurines with sprouts of chia to resemble hair or fur, or at least the jingle on their advertisement, “Chi-Chi-Chi-Chia!” If you haven’t heard already, you probably will soon, people are now consuming chia seeds for the added health benefits. Who would have thought that a garden ornament could be ingested to promote health and vitality?

Chia seeds are from the desert plant Salvia hispanica, a member of the mint family, and can be eaten raw or added to dishes (1). Consumers add chia to baked goods, breads, porridges, smoothies, and can be ground and added to water or milk. The seeds can be purchased at local health food stores or online. The familiar chia hair or sprouts can also be eaten and added to salads, sandwiches, and other dishes (1). Numerous claims can be found in the media concerning chia. Chia being an excellent source of fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and antioxidants are some of the proposed claims. The media also claims that chia can help cut cravings, balance blood sugar levels, improve cardiovascular disease, lower cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, and can promote weight loss. This exceptional list of health benefits really peaked my interest to find out the real scoop concerning chia seeds.

It is true that chia seeds do provide omega-3 fatty acids and contain fiber, antioxidants, protein, and minerals (1). While claims of weight loss and decreases in daily cravings may be a bit far fetched, increases in satiety due to the fiber and protein content may be valid. A study conducted by Nieman and Colleagues concluded that ingestion of 50g/d of chia seeds for 12 weeks did not influence body mass, composition, or disease risk factors in overweight/obese men and women (2). A recent study published in The Journal of Nutrition viewed the effects of a specific dietary pattern on Metabolic Syndrome (3). Sixty-seven participants with Metabolic Syndrome were involved in the study and were given a mixture to drink twice a day. The mixture chosen was based on antihyperglycemic, antihyperinsulinemic, hypolipidemic, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidants effects (3). Chia seeds were included in this mixture because of the presence of fatty acids and antioxidants that promote a reduction in the inflammatory response (3). This study concluded that a dietary pattern of nopal, chia seed, soy protein, and oat showed a reduction in serum triglyceride levels, serum CRP (C-Reactive Protein test, indicates acute inflammation or infection), and insulin AUC (3).

Although this study does provide encouraging outcomes, more research needs to be done with the conjunction of chia seeds helping to improve cardiovascular disease, lowering cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, and weight loss promotion (1). Little published research concerning chia exists, and most information available is based on lab animals not humans (1). So remember, be an informed consumer with a critical eye when reviewing media claims. If you are looking for fiber or antioxidants, chia seeds would be a great addition to your diet; but for weight loss, stick with good old exercise and healthy food choices!

References:

1) Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. What are Chia seeds? Are There Health Benefits?

2) Nieman DC, Cayea EJ, Austin MD, Henson DA, McAnulty SR, Jin F. Chia seed does not promote weight loss or alter disease risk factors in overweight adults. Nutr Res. 2009;29:414- 418.

3) Guevara-Cruz M, Tovar A, Aguilar-Salinas C, Medina-Vera I, Gil-Zenteno L, Hernandez-Viveros I, Lopez-Romero P, Ordaz-Nava G, Canizales-Quinteros S, Guillen Pineda L, Torres N. A Dietary Pattern Including Nopal, Chia Seed, Soy Protein, and Oat Reduces Serum Triglycerides and Glucose Intolerance in Patients with Metabolic Syndrome. J. Nutr. 2012;142:64-69.