By Matt Gibson
What’s the difference between herbs and vegetables, anyway? Let’s take a look and explain what’s different and what they have in common. The quick version is that herbs are mostly just a subset of vegetables that are usually used for flavor, garnish, aroma or medicinal properties. Vegetables in general are usually consumed for their caloric and nutrient content. But let’s look at it in more detail.
While fruits are typically known as the part of a plant that contains the seed, vegetables can be made up of any edible part of a plant. Vegetables can be made of the roots or bulbs of a plant, as is the case with carrots, radishes, turnips, beets, potatoes, yams, rutabagas, onions, and garlic (and a handful of others). Vegetables could be from the flowers of a plant, as is the case with broccoli, artichokes and cauliflower. The fruit of a plant could be a vegetable too, like tomatoes, olives, zucchini, eggplant, peas, beans, avocado, cucumber, pumpkin, corn, peppers, and okra (to name a few). Even the stems of a plant can be a vegetable, like a stalk of celery. Tomatoes are a fruit, according to the standard definition of fruit, but in culinary terms, tomatoes are considered a vegetable.
Herbs are a subset of vegetables, and they are generally composed of strong and flavorful leaves of certain plants, such as dill, oregano, thyme, parsley, sage, cilantro and basil. Herbs are typically used to season dishes made from vegetables, grains, and meats, as they have a pungent flavor, making them great for seasoning.
Herbs and spices are very similar, but spices are taken from practically any part of the plant, including the roots, seeds, leaves, fruit, or even the bark. Examples of spices made from roots include turmeric, ginger, and horseradish. Spices made from fruit include red pepper, fennel, and coriander. Spices made from seeds include allspice, black pepper, mustard, and caraway. Spices from leaves include bay leaf, mint, marjoram, and basically any fresh herb, once dried, can be used as a spice culinarily.
In many ways, fruits are to vegetables what herbs are to spices. Fruits are seed pods that can be vegetables, but vegetables can be any part of a plant, while fruits are just seed pods. Herbs are fresh plant leaves that can be spices, but spices can be from any part of a plant, while herbs are just fresh plant leaves.
While vegetables are commonly eaten by themselves, herbs are typically used to accompany meats, vegetables, and other foods, and rarely served by themselves. Herbs and vegetables often make a great team. They can be paired together in a recipe to make a fantastic dish, and they can be paired together in the garden, as companion plants. Many herbs are pest resistant, and their strong odors drive pests away. Planting herbs in your vegetable garden can help deter pests from attacking your vegetable crops.
There are many ways in which vegetables and herbs are similar, and many ways in which they differ. In this article, we will pit the two together in a cage match, and see if we can discern a clear winner, while analyzing the pros and cons of each.
Vegetable plants typically have leaves, but the leaves are often discarded, as they are not popularly used in many cuisines. However, discarding veggie leaves is usually a mistake, as they are usually rich in antioxidants and a powerful source of naturally occurring vitamins and minerals. Beetroot leaves, for example, are extremely high in antioxidants, as well as vitamins A, and K. Radish, Celery, and Carrot leaves are also incredibly rich sources of nutrients that should never be discarded. Toss vegetable leaves and sprigs of fresh herbs into your salad greens to make a more versatile mix of greens for your salads.
Most herbaceous plants hold the majority of their flavor and fragrance in their leaves. This is especially true when it comes to herbs. Herb leaves are often used in recipes when they are fresh or dried. Many herbs are dried to preserve them for longer periods of use. Aside from oregano, the antioxidant levels in fresh herbs are much higher than in dried herbs. If you are looking for nutrients, fresher is typically better than dried.
Vegetable roots are often much larger than the roots of herb plants, as vegetables are typically bigger plants than herbs. Many vegetables have large root systems, some reaching as deep as 10 feet under the soil’s surface, such as asparagus. Some vegetables are even made from their roots, like carrots, radishes, turnips, beets, rutabagas, potatoes, yams, onions, and garlic.
Generally, herbs produce much smaller root systems than vegetables do. Herb gardens are perfectly suited to shallow soil beds and herb plants tend to grow well in small, isolated locations, such as a windowsill garden, or a balcony garden. A handful of spices are made from roots, such as ginger and turmeric, but these are not technically herbs, as they are not made from the leaves of the plant.
Vegetable stems, like the leaves of vegetable plants, are often discarded, even though they are usually highly nutritious. Though some are faster than others, vegetables tend to grow fairly quickly, often producing multiple harvests in a single year. All that growth leads to a lot of stems. Though not all vegetable stems are edible, the stems of broccoli and cauliflower, for example, are nearly as tasty as their florets, and just as tender. Broccoli stems, according to the USDA, have upwards of six percent vitamin C and 2 percent more folate than broccoli florets. On some vegetables, however, the stems are woody, and hard to chew, or swallow.
Herb stems are typically smaller and softer in texture than vegetable stems. This is due to herbs typically being smaller plants than vegetable plants. The stems of herb plants also don’t have to hold up heavy fruits like many vegetable plants do, so they are generally less rigid, thick, or woody. On some herbs, like cilantro, the stems and leaves are chopped up together and used in tandem, and the stems pack just as much flavor as the leaves. On other herbs, the stems are typically discarded, and only the leaves themselves are used in production. Some herbs have stems that are not often put to use culinarily, but are high in nutrients and can easily be softened up by steaming or by adding them to a stir-fry.
Vegetables need a soil that is well suited to their needs. While the specifics vary from plant to plant, vegetables typically need a very nutritious soil that is high in organic content, free from debris, tilled to increase drainage, and free of weeds that compete for nutrients and moisture. Soils are typically prepared and amended prior to planting vegetables in order to meet their specific needs. Depleted soils need to be reinvigorated before planting vegetables in them to ensure there are adequate levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium for them to feed on throughout the growing season.
Herbs tend to thrive in a wide variety of different soil types and climates. They typically don’t need a lot of fertilizer to thrive, and are generally more hardy and adaptable to different growing conditions than vegetables. Though some herbs are particular about the pH levels of your soil, or the nutritional content, most herbs will grow well even in poor soil conditions.
Vegetable crops are common targets of garden pests, as insects seem to love vegetables as much as the humans that cultivate them. Oftentimes, vegetable farmers have to resort to using pesticides to spray down their vegetable crops in order to prevent pests from decimating their harvests. Buy organically grown vegetables if you want to avoid eating plants that have been sprayed down by insecticides.
While not all herbs are immune to pest infestations, many herbs contain oils that naturally deter garden pests. Some herbs are pest resistant due to their strong smells, which drive pests away. Rosemary, Thyme, Mint, and Clove plants are often planted next to vegetable plants that are susceptible to common pests, both to enjoy the fresh herbs they will produce, and in order to help keep certain garden pests away from their valued veggie crops.
You’ve probably been told to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables all your life, as fresh produce has long been considered to be essential to a healthy diet. However, the herbs that you use sparingly to flavor your food are actually higher in antioxidants than fruits and vegetables. Oregano is actually the herb with the highest antioxidant count, followed closely by rosemary, dill, thyme, and peppermint.
Though it might be a tall task to start eating herbs like you would fruits and vegetables, you should try to add as many fresh herbs as you can to your diet just to add more cancer-fighting antioxidants to your system on a regular basis. Add a green sprig of mint to freshen up your tea, use fresh dill to add a subtle tartness to seafood and chicken dishes, use a few sprigs of rosemary to enliven meat and poultry recipes, and use oregano in italian meals, or to add depth to beef, lamb, or chicken dishes.
You don’t have to use herbs to replace fruits and veggies in your diet, but try to incorporate fresh herbs into your meals more often to improve the taste of your food and to give you a healthy nutritional boost as well.