What Is the Difference Between Herbs and Spices?

difference between spices and herbs

I often hear the words herbs and spices used interchangeably, but they are actually very different seasonings and they have different effects on the health.


Difference between herbs and spices

Culinary herbs generally come from the leafy part of herbaceous plants that grow in temperate climates. For example, basil, oregano, cilantro, and parsley are all herbs.

Herbs are a tasty addition to the diet and can be used freely as a seasoning with no negative effects on health.


spices pepper 1

Spices are generally the bark, buds, roots, seeds, or fruit of plants and usually have a tropical origin. For example, ginger (a root), nutmeg (a seed), cloves (a bud), and cinnamon (bark) are all spices.

Due to their chemical composition, many spices are quite irritating to the digestive system and can inflame the lining of the stomach and other organs and reduce the stomach’s protective barrier.  A significant increase in stomach acids occurs after eating even a very small amount of most spices and this can contribute to the development of ulcers.

Pepper, in particular, has been shown to cause focal areas of necrosis and hemorrhage in the stomach. Black pepper also contains a chemical that is cancer producing. Mice exposed to an extract of black pepper applied to the skin developed more lung, liver, and skin cancers.

Spices have also been shown to trigger acid reflux and contribute to insomnia.

Spices contain acids or volatile oils that are harmful to the kidney tubules and can contribute to kidney stones. In Mexico and India, where curry and other spices are popular, there are more cases of kidney stones than in other countries that do not consume such a high quantity of spices.

In India, a country where chili pepper, black mustard seed, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, and ginger are a common part of the cuisine, esophageal and oral cancer rates are among the highest in the world.

Scientists at the University of Texas have determined that certain spices permanently alter cells and can cause breaks in chromosomes in such a way as to alter the normal cell’s ability to reproduce itself.

Many spices, especially nutmeg, are also damaging to the central nervous system and can cause irritability, cravings, and nervousness.

The use of spices also has a tendency to gradually reduce the sensation of taste, thus increasing the “need” for more and more flavor with food and causing the individual to be less and less satisfied with simple, nourishing, whole food. This continually increasing desire for more “taste” can lead to obesity.

Bland, Flavorless Food?

But omitting spices and their harmful effects doesn’t mean that food has to be flavorless.  Herbs like oregano, mint, basil, parsley, rosemary, sage, thyme, and cilantro can be used for seasoning instead. Garlic and onion can add some healthy flavor as well.

Healthy Alternatives

Check out this luscious chili recipe seasoned with herbs.

Herbamare is another healthy seasoning made from sea salt and dried, organic vegetables.

A splash of lemon juice can also add some zest to foods.  Or if you’re looking for something to season your vegetables, try topping them with one of my delicious dressings, like this fabulous, Creamy Italian Dressing.

Healthful Herbs

Bay Leaf
Paprika (sweet)

Irritating Spices

Cayenne pepper
Chili powder
Pepper (white, red, and black)

Mildly Irritating Spices

(or irritating only in large quantities)

Poppy Seed

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  1. Well written Jennifer. I agree. I think the benefits of adding little to none of the irritating spices to our food far out way the pleasure one can get from their use.

  2. Thank you! I’ve often been confused on this and had some mixed feedback to my questions. Helpful list!

  3. Do you have ideas on how to make home made ice cream softer.
    We made some home made ice cream from your recipe and it was good but very hard.
    Lenny & Jan.

    1. Most homemade ice cream, and especially healthier recipes such as my non-dairy ice cream recipe , do tend to freeze harder than store-bought ice cream. The reason for this is that store-bought ice cream usually has more refined fat and refined sugar than homemade, and these ingredients make the ice cream softer. Also, many store-bought varieties use chemical stabilizers to make the ice cream soft.

      Some add eggs to the mix, but that just add cholesterol and increases the fat content.

      Churning it longer can sometimes help a little. But the best solution I can offer is to take the ice cream out of the freezer a few minutes before serving.

      Sorry I couldn’t be of more help.

  4. The “cinnamon substitute” recipe that I have uses coriander and cardamom.

    Second, I am also confused about turmeric. The “mustard substitute” recipe that I have uses turmeric.

    Third, am I to understand that we should be avoiding cayenne and cumin as well? I thought that cayenne had medicinal qualities.

    I have an autoimmune condition. I want to make sure that I am not confused on these points. Maybe I need to update my recipes for these. Any comments or recommendations would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi Kara,
      I haven’t been able to uncover enough information about cardamom to say definitively (hence its absence from the list), but it seems that it *may* be mildly irritating, but certainly not as irritating as cinnamon.

      Turmeric is also mildly irritating, but not as much as mustard. I’ve tried leaving the turmeric out mustard substitute recipes, and (in my opinion) it turns out fine.

      Cayenne is very irritating, but it also has some excellent medicinal benefits. One would need to weigh the benefits and the risks in deciding whether to use it or not. There are several “natural-remedy-type” alternatives that can be used in place of cayenne, depending on what the need is.

      I hope this is helpful. 🙂

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