The Skepcook: Reviewing “Herbal Recipes”

February 10, 2012

As an herb gardener (see that persona on my website, www.joenickell.com), or at least as my wife Diana's understudy, I appreciate the satisfaction of growing, harvesting, and processing herbs—dried sage and oregano, for savory cooking; fresh basil, to snip onto sliced tomatoes (accompanying scrambled eggs for breakfast); and spearmint, for my Kentucky mint juleps! We also cultivate rosemary, chives, parsley, thyme, and more.

So when we visited a psychic fair, I was happy to pick up a copy of Hillwoman's Kitchen Herbal Recipes (2011), even though it was published by Metaphysical Times. Author Sue-Ryn Burns offers such treats as a "stew brew" (a mix of herbs to add to long, slow-cooked stews and vegetable soups), a little treatise on herb vinegars, another on herbal jellies, and some distinctive culinary recipes, including Bean Soup Seasonings, Green Salad Herbs, and Stuffing Blend.

I cautiously approached the section on Herbal Tea Recipes, and was rewarded by several appropriate warning notes: For example, "Licorice root should be avoided by anyone suffering from hypertension as it can cause fluid and salt retention." (I was pleased to see this, lest the book itself raise my blood pressure!) Again she warns, concerning a Sage Mint Tea, "Because of the thujone content in sage this tea should not be consumed by pregnant women." In fact, sage does have thujone oil, and medical sources (e.g., the American Cancer Society's website, www.cancer.org), caution that it should be avoided by pregnant or breast-feeding women.

Generally, Ms. Burns cautions: "You can and should do your homework before using herbs. Just because they are natural, does not mean they are all safe for everyone." Indeed, while many people believe "natural" medicines (such as herbal remedies) are inherently safe, the fact is that there are important issues of dosage, drug interaction, contamination, and other concerns. There is also the fact that use of an ineffective medicine means that anticipated health benefits go unrealized. (See my "Traditional Chinese Medicine: Views East and West" in the March/April 2012 Skeptical Inquirer).

Unfortunately, the word ineffective needs to be kept in mind when reading elsewhere in Burns's little book. She mentions "aromatherapy" and the purported "beneficial effects of pleasant scents," but what are these beneficial effects? According to such books as C. Norman Shealy's The Complete Family Guide to Alternative Medicine (1996), they include relieving stress and reducing pain—the very benefits attributed to most "alternative" techniques and to the placebo effect. I like to joke: "What is the difference between a scented candle and an aromatherapy one? About ten dollars!"

Moreover, Burns speaks blithely about the "calming" and "soothing" effects of "Sleep and Dream Pillows," i.e., fragrant-herb-containing cloth bags (say, of flannel for men and of silk or satin for women). They may be filled with the "soothing sweetness" of such fragrant botanicals and spices as roses, jasmine, rosemary, Chamomile, sandalwood chips, lavender, and so on. "Crystals can also add a little magic," she says, suggesting rose quartz or amethyst and advising in New Age fashion, "Let your heart be your guide."

Finally, she goes off the deep end and not only mentions her prayer to "Grandmother Moon," but describes the "most fertile Astrological signs for planting," and other persistent nonsense. I am thus reminded of Penn Gillette's insistence that New Age be pronounced so as to rhyme with sewage—that which no amount of herbal fragrance can quite cover up.

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