Spices vs. Herbs: What’s the Difference?

Spices and herbs are commonly used to flavor our food, so many people think the terms can be used interchangeably. However, they are two very different substances, and it’s actually easy to tell them apart.

A spice comes from parts of the plant other than the leaves and is dried. Common plant parts used for spices include the fruit, seeds, and outer or root bark. They are added to foods for the purpose of enhancing flavor or color, or they may act as a preservative to kill or prevent harmful bacteria. They are used in quantities that are considered not significant enough for adding nutrients. Spices may also be used in other ways, such as for religious rituals, in cosmetics and perfume, in medicines, or eaten as vegetables, although they may be called by different names. For example, turmeric is used both as a spice and as a preservative, while garlic is used as both a spice and a vegetable. Licorice serves as a spice and a medicine.

In contrast, herbs are leafy green parts of plants, also used for flavorings, scents, in medicines, and for religious purposes. Many herbs may be used fresh, but spices are always used in a dried form. They may be grated or ground into a powder, and small seeds may be used either whole or in powder form.

Herbs have many uses, although general usage distinguishes between medicinal herbs and culinary herbs. For medicinal and spiritual use, any section of the plant may be considered herbs, including the leaves, flowers, seeds, roots, resin, bark, and berries.

Culinary herbs, on the other hand, defines an herb as the leafy green parts, while spices are derived from the remainder of the plant. Like spices, herbs are used in small amounts to provide flavor, rather than to provide nutrition and substance like a vegetable. Some plants are used as both a spice and an herb. Dill is one such example, with the seeds being a spice and the leaves being used as an herb. Culinary herbs may be perennials, biennials, annuals, shrubs, or trees.

Medicinal herbs use the chemicals in the plants for the effect they have on the body. Throughout recorded history, humans have relied on the medicinal benefits of herbs, quoted in such sources as the Koran, Bible, Siddhar poems, and other ancient texts. Chinese herbal medicine was developed on the foundation of medicinal use of herbs, dating back to the first century.

Some medicinal herbs are used in small quantities similar to culinary uses, and some herbs may be toxic at larger quantities. For example, St. John-wort and kava can be used to relieve stress and depression. However, large quantities of each herb can be poisonous, so they should be used in moderation.

Herbs may also be used in sacred ceremonies. In Christianity, myrrh and frankincense were used to honor kings. A form of Basil called Tulsi or Holy Basil is worshipped in Hinduism for its medicinal value, and many Hindus keep a Tulsi plant in front of the house. Siberian Shamans used herbs for religious ceremonies, and the Cherokee Native Americans use herbs like sage and cedar for spiritual cleaning.

Herbs can also be used in gardens for effective pest control. When planted around your home’s foundation, some herbs discourage flies, ants, fleas, moths, ticks, and mice, while posing no danger to children, pets, the house, or the environment. Some of these herbs include mint, peppermint, spearmint, and pennyroyal.

Today, because spices and herbs are used so interchangeably, some people say there’s no difference between the two, while other people argue that they are completely different. While the differences might be subtle, there are valid differences. In addition to the distinction between where the substances are obtained from the plant, there’s also a matter of origin. Herbs are found throughout the world, while most spices are common to the Far East and to tropical regions. Herbs are also thought to have more uses than spices, as there are more herbs used medicinally than are spices.

Whatever your thoughts about whether the distinction between herbs and spices is important, its clear that both have many uses and have play many important roles in history.

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