The Health Benefits of Savory

A Popular Culinary Herb with Potent Health Benefits

Savory (Satureja hortensis L.) is a unique traditional culinary herb with some surprising health benefits. Its pleasant aroma and sharp, pungent flavor make savory a popular herb for seasoning many foods, particularly those included in European and American cuisine.

Savory has traditionally been used in folk medicine as an expectorant (a medicine used to treat coughs), a carminative (to help get rid of gas) a tonic (a medicinal substance that provides a feeling of vigor and well-being) and an astringent (an agent that shrinks body tissues, used to reduce inflammation, dry up oily skin and more).

This herb belongs to the mint (Lamiacea) family, but it doesn’t taste like mint; rather, it is similar in taste to thyme or oregano. There are two variations of savory, including summer savory (Satureja hortensis) and winter savory (Satureia montana); each has a different flavor and each is said to have unique health benefits. Other names for summer savory include ajedrea de jardín, bean herb, bohnenkraut, Calamintha hortensis, herbe de saint julien, poivrette, sarriette commune and sarriette des jardins. 

Health Benefits

Many health-promoting properties have been identified in summer savory, such as:

  • Antimicrobial: Antifungal and antibacterial properties to help fight infection
  • Antioxidant: A substance that removes damaging agents and is thought to combat age related disease
  • Antidiabetic: Blood sugar lowering properties
  • Anti-hyperlipidemic: Ability to lower lipids (fats in the blood)
  • Antiproliferative: Inhibits tumor cell growth
  • Antispasmodic: Decreases spasms (relieves cramps and spasms in the stomach, intestines and bladder
  • Anti-inflammatory: Reduces inflammation, which is associated with many diseases (including pain and inflammation in arthritis and many more conditions).
  • Sedative: Promotes relaxation and sleep
  • Vasodilatory properties: Dilates blood vessels and promotes adequate blood flow through the blood vessels.

Medicinal Uses of Savory

Summer savory is often used medicinally for sore throats, diarrhea, nausea, and more. Some people consider savory an aphrodisiac to increase the sex drive.

Other medicinal uses for savory include:

  • Indigestion
  • Loss of appetite
  • Cramps
  • Coughs
  • Thirst (in people with diabetes)
  • Insect bites (used directly on the skin)

Medical and therapeutic uses of savory have not been backed by enough medical research studies to prove its safety or effectiveness. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved any health claims for savory.

Extensive research studies have demonstrated that the Satureja species has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antidiabetic and antitumor properties.

Antioxidants

Antioxidants protect cells against damage from normal cellular aerobic respiration (the process of producing cellular energy, involving oxygen), which is thought to protect against aging diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, a 2014 study examined summer savory for its ability to protect the body from oxidative stress, free radical damage, inflammation, and infections. The study authors reported that Satureja (savory) is comprised of “high amounts of antioxidants called polyphenols and flavonoids.”  Antioxidant levels are highly concentrated in the essential oils of the plant.

Antitumor

One study found that the savory species Satureja montana L. (winter savory) was effective in inhibiting the growth of tumor cells in specific types of cancer.

Antidiabetic

Savory has been found to improve disorders impacted by the damage from oxidative stress, such as in complications of diabetes. These include liver damage and high lipid (fat) levels in the blood. In addition, natural antioxidants (such as polyphenols) found in savory have been shown to have similar effects on lowering blood sugar as antidiabetic drugs.

Anticoagulant 

The anticoagulant (inhibiting blood clotting) activity in S. hortensis (summer savory) is thought to promote heart health by preventing blood clots that often lead to cardiovascular problems (such as stroke or heart attack).

Anti-inflammatory

Some species of the Satureja genus have been found in studies to possess anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain-relieving) effects. Polyphenolic compounds in the essential oil of savory have been found to produce a potent anti-inflammatory effect, comparable to that of drugs like prednisone.

Antimicrobial (Germ Killing)

The volatile oils in savory leaves are called carvacrol and thymol. Thymol is known to be a strong antifungal and antiseptic agent, enabling it to help prevent the spread of fungal infections. Carvacrol is an antibacterial agent that helps fight various types of bacteria such as E. coli.

One study found that some savory species may help to slow down the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and reduce neuronal degeneration (loss of structure and function in brain cells—a common symptom of Alzheimer’s disease). More research is needed before savory can be recommended as a mainstream medical treatment.

More studies are needed to see if savory is useful for the treatment of serious conditions, such as heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and more. Savory essential oil may prove to be an affordable, natural source of antioxidants, not only for nutritional uses but also for pharmaceutical purposes.

Possible Side Effects

Although eating savory as a seasoning on food is usually considered relatively safe, there are some precautions that should be taken, particularly when using savory as a medicinal herb.

Savory is considered “possibly safe for most people when taken by mouth in usual medicinal amounts. But there is not enough clinical research data available to prove the safe or effective dose when taken for health benefits. Studies have shown that savory may be irritating to the skin when used as an essential oil."

It is not advisable for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding to use savory because of lack of medical research evidence, to prove its safety for pregnant or breastfeeding women.

Savory might interfere with the natural blood clotting process in the body, therefore it should be avoided:

  • By those who are taking Coumadin (warfarin) or other blood-thinning medications
  • When a person is having a scheduled surgery
  • For at least two weeks before and after surgery

Always consult with a professional health care provider before taking savory or any other herbal supplement.

Contraindications

Contraindications are medications, supplements, or treatments that should not be taken together, or under specific circumstances. Savory is contraindicated when taking medications that affect blood clotting, including:

Dosage

The right dose of summer savory (or any other medicinal herb) depends on several factors, including age, physical health, and many other conditions. Natural products (even those that are considered culinary plants and herbs) can cause severe side effects and interact with drugs, other herbal supplements and more. Always follow the prescribing health care provider’s instructions on dosage. Be sure to adhere to the package instructions on any commercially prepared herbal supplement.

Selection, Preparation & Storage

Both forms of savory, including summer and winter savory, are commonly used as a seasoning to enhance the flavor of foods such as legumes, broths, sauces, pasta, salads, and mayonnaise.

The leaves and stems of the savory plant are used in fresh, dried or ground form as a spice for food, and for personal care preparations. The dried leaves are used to make a savory tea.

An essential oil is made from the savory plant. It’s important to note that summer savory oil is irritating to the skin; it should not be applied directly to the skin unless it’s properly diluted with some type of carrier oil (such as almond oil or jojoba oil).

When buying savory as a supplement or essential oil, be aware that the FDA does not regulate herbal remedies and supplements as they do pharmaceutical products. Look for a trusted independent third party verification on the label, such as U.S. Pharmacopeia, NSF International, or ConsumerLab. Manufacturers are not allowed to market a dietary supplement as a treatment or cure for a specific disease, or to alleviate the symptoms of a disease.

Storage

To store savory, use a plastic bag and store the fresh stems and leaves in the refrigerator. To freeze, place branches on a cookie sheet and freeze. Next, strip off the leaves and place them into plastic containers, then re-freeze the leaves for long-term storage.

Common Questions

What is the difference between summer savory and winter savory?

Summer savory (Satureia hortensis L.) has a sweeter flavor (like marjoram) it’s commonly used to flavor sausage, turkey and duck and other types of meat. Summer savory is often used to flavor the same foods that sage is used for. Summer savory is an annual plant that grows approximately 4 to 10 inches tall, with a heavily branched stem and slender, bronze-green leaves. Medicinally, summer savory has been used to treat inflammation, coughs, infections and more.

Winter savory (Satureia montana) has more of a bitter flavor than summer savory and is not used as commonly used to flavor foods as summer savory. But when cooked, much of the pungent flavor disappears. Winter savory comes from a semi-evergreen bushy and woody perennial shrub, with small pink or white flowers and dark green, shiny leaves. It is often used to flavor sauces, soups, and salads. Winter savory is considered an antibacterial agent and is commonly used for treating nausea, gas, congestion and coughs.

Is there a substitute for savory’s use as a seasoning?

Yes, a substitute is thyme, which is a common staple in many Mediterranean dishes. Thyme has a pungent/minty flavor, which is like savory. Another substitute is sage, with its pungent taste, but only fresh sage should be substituted, not dried sage.  Both sage and thyme can be used in the same measurement when a recipe calls for savory. 

Do all savory plants the same in strength and potency?

No, according to a 2014 study the chemical makeup of the savory plant varies greatly depending on the species of savory plant, the geographical location it is grown in, and the stage of development of the plant.

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Article Sources

  1. Hamidpour R, Hamidpour S, Hamidpour M, Shahlari M, Sohraby M. Summer Savory: From the Selection of Traditional Applications to the Novel Effect in Relief, Prevention, and Treatment of a Number of Serious Illnesses such as Diabetes, Cardiovascular Disease, Alzheimer's Disease, and Cancer. J Tradit Complement Med. 2014;4(3):140-4. DOI:10.4103/2225-4110.136540

  2. Khan IA, Abourashed EA. Leung's Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics. 3rd Ed. A. John Wiley & Sons Inc., Publication; Volume 3, 2010, Pages.559-561.

Additional Reading

  • Geetha S.Pillai, Ravindran, P.m Babu, N. Under-utilized herbs and spices. Centre for Medicinal Plants Research, India. Indian Institute of Spices Research, India. 2014; 27 (3). DOI:10.1533/9781855738355.1.53