Basil has complex history, properties
The folklore: Basil is the common name for the culinary herb Ocimum basilicum, which is a member of the mint family. Thought to originate from Africa, the herb was domesticated in India, and then introduced to America in the 17th century, by way of the English.
The name “basil” is derived from the Greek word “basileus,” which means “kingly” or “royal.” Indeed, the herb has been found buried with kings in Egyptian tombs. Throughout history, basil has been used for ailments, such as digestion issues, epilepsy, gout, hiccups, impotency, fluid retention, sore throats, toothaches and snake/insect bites.
The facts: There are more than 165 basil species, but the most common in the United States is sweet basil, known for its licorice-clove flavor. However, different varietals of this basil provide specific flavors and smells; lemon basil, anise basil, clove basil and cinnamon basil each have fragrances and taste profiles that match their respective names. Most basil plants have green leaves; however, opal basil's are a beautiful, purple color.
Basil is low in calories and provides a notable amount of vitamins A, C and K, and the mineral manganese. It is also rich in the phenolic compounds rosmarinic and caffeic acid, which have strong antioxidant properties, as well as volatile oils that have anti-bacterial properties.
The findings: Research has found basil to offer anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and antioxidant properties that may help improve health and fight disease. Studies show that basil intake may help make platelets — a component of red blood cells — less sticky, thus reducing the chance of blood clots. In addition, basil extract reduces swelling among arthritis sufferers by up to 73 percent, according to a study presented at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society's annual meeting. Basil oil even helps fight acne bacteria, according to research published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science. Preliminary research suggests basil also may slow cancer progression and improve survival rate in animals with certain types of cancer, although additional research is needed for humans.
The finer points: Basil is abundant during the summer months, but also can be grown indoors in a pot near a sunny window all year. Select fresh basil with evenly colored deep-green leaves, free from dark spots or yellowing. Store basil in the refrigerator, wrapped in a wet paper towel in a plastic bag, for up to four days. To maintain the integrity of the color and flavor of basil, add the fresh leaves to recipes during the last few minutes of cooking. Basil is a great addition to salads, soups, pizza, meat, poultry or pasta. Puree it in a delicious pesto or a fruit smoothie. Even basil's flowers are edible and can be candied or added to salads and other dishes.
Kaley Todd, MS, RDN, is a contributing writer for Environmental Nutrition, the award-winning independent newsletter written by nutrition experts.