Basil is a potent herb used as a key flavouring in Italian cuisine. It adds punch to pesto and salads, is a key ingredient in many Italian pasta dishes, and is also great on pizza. But what are the benefits to this herb? What does it contain? And what are the compounds that create its unmistakably pungent flavour?
The Benefits of Culinary Basil
Many of the herbs in your pantry contain an abundance of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. These compounds serve different functions in your body and consuming them can be a great way to boost your nutrient intake while adding flavour.
Basil is no exception, and there are a few ways this herb can benefit you when consumed regularly.
High in Vitamin K
Dried herbs are a good source of a few key minerals and vitamins. You won’t find enough of these to meet your full daily requirements, but they can certainly top them up. Where basil is concerned, it contains fewer than 5% of calcium, iron, and manganese for every 1 tbsp of dried leaf, but the same quantity will give you over a third of your recommend daily vitamin K intake.
Vitamin K is found in abundance in green vegetables such as kale, spinach, sprouts, and broccoli, and you’ll also find much smaller quantities in meat and fish. If you’re not big on your greens, you may struggle to get your fill of this vitamin, in which case, a little basil could help.
Basil extracts have been studied for their antibacterial effects, because, like rosemary, they contain potent essential oils that may help combat the spread of bacteria inside and outside the body. (1) (2)
As we’ve discussed several times in the past, you should also take the supposed antibacterial benefits of a substance with a pinch of salt, because unless you’re rubbing extracts on wounds or using them as mouthwash, you’re unlikely to get those benefits. But if it works for manuka, then maybe it will work for basil, as well.
May Reduce Blood Pressure
Although studies have been few and far between, some suggest that regular consumption of basil can help reduce blood pressure in a natural and side-effect-free way. However, these effects are not strong enough to mimic the benefits of common prescription medications, and more research needs to be conducted before any conclusions can be made. (3)
May Have Anti-Cancer Properties
This is something that seems to come up with every herb we cover. As mentioned previously, a lot of it stems from the potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects that these herbs provide, as well as the fact that thousands of natural plant compounds possess some possible anti-cancer benefits.
In the case of basil, it contains essential oils that exhibit mild anti-cancer benefits against specific cancer cells when used in large doses. (4)
Other Benefits of Basil
Sweet basil is not a magical herb, and no amount of regular consumption is going to cure your ailments and change your life. The same can be said for many other culinary herbs, but the majority of the other herbs we have covered have a little more to them than basil. The research surrounding rosemary, for instance, is much more promising, and there’s also a lot of excitement around peppermint.
But, these herbs are consumed for their flavour and their abilities to transform common dishes, not to work wonders for your health. If it’s an exciting, well-researched, healthy herb you seek, take a look at our Cistus tea. If it’s a delicious herb to throw in a pot of pasta, stick with basil.
Basil versus Holy Basil
To avoid confusion, it’s worth noting that basil is not the same as holy basil. The former is a common culinary herb, also known as Ocimum Basilicum or sweet basil. It’s an herb you can buy fresh and dried—and one you probably have in your pantry or spice rack. As for the latter, Ocimum Sanctum or tulsi, it’s more commonly used as an alternative medicine.
Tulsi or holy basil is from the same family as sweet basil, which is also known as Genovese Basil, but it’s rarely used as a culinary herb and you likely won’t find it in the herb section of your local supermarket.
Basil in Global Cultures
Basil is native to Southeast Asia and parts of Africa, but today it is at its most popular in Italy, where it is grown in abundance and enjoyed in a host of dishes and drinks.
The ancient Greeks wrote about basil thousands of years ago, although they had a somewhat love-hate relationship with the herb. On the one hand, it’s believed that they placed bundles of the herb in the hands of the dead to help with their passage into the afterlife, but on the other, it’s said that it embodied hatred.
Having likely originated from India, basil was coveted by the Romans. Pliny wrote extensively about the herb, noting that the Greeks had a great misunderstanding about its supposed negative effects but that “succeeding ages” had grown to appreciate it better.
It’s said that the herb was praised highly in Hinduism (although in this case, it seems that holy basil was the subject of their adoration) and Judaism, but in Medieval Europe, it was seen as a symbol of Satan, perhaps suggesting medieval Europeans were influenced by early Greek beliefs.
How to Use Basil
Legend has it that the first pizza margherita was made for the Margherita of Savoy by Neapolitan chef Raffaele Esposito in 1889. He used tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil to represent the tri-colours on the Italian flag, and thus the modern pizza was born. Except, as with most origin stories, the truth is a little less worthy of a folk tale and much less interesting.
Flatbreads had been common in Italy for many hundreds of years before this pizza was created. Dozens of pizzerias existed in Italy before this date, some of which were making similar pizzas to the Margherita, albeit with different names. No one really knows the real origin, but we do know that it became a globally adored food in the 20th century.
Basil is somewhat of a rare topping outside of Italy, and here in the United Kingdom, you’d be hard pressed to find a local pizza shop that went anywhere near this herb. But the traditional Margherita, and the one you’ll be served in Italian pizzerias and in Napoli, the birthplace of pizza, is still made with these three ingredients, along with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt.
Basil works on pizza because it goes really well with tomatoes, adding some extra bite and bringing out the fresh flavour. It tastes great in pasta dishes and can also add some flavour to a lasagne or some tomatoes and bruschetta. If the dishes use tomatoes, olive oil, and some form of bread (pasta, bruschetta), add a little basil.
If you find tinned tomato soup a little bland, or want to make your own flavourful batch, add some basil leaves and a pinch of black pepper and you’ll have a delicious Italian-inspired creation on your hands.