When most folks think of bay leaf, they immediately recall the aroma of delicious Italian food cooking on the stove. This herb has been around for centuries for medicinal purposes as well as for flavoring flood. Used in cooking for a distinctive, savory flavor or fragrance for meats, soups and stews, and even as an ingredient in a cologne known as bay rum, you may find bay leaf in cosmetics, soaps and detergents as well.
The bay leaf is extraordinary for its many health benefits, such as helping treat cancer, gas and bloating and digestion. There’s even some evidence it may help treat dandruff, muscle and joint pain, and skin infections, though further research is needed to confirm those uses. Find out how to use this ancient herb in order to get some of these amazing benefits.
What Is Bay Leaf?
The bay leaf references various plants, including bay laurel, California bay leaf, Indian bay leaf, Indonesian bay leaf or Indonesian laurel, West Indian bay leaf, and the Mexican bay leaf. However, Turkish bay leaves are the most commonly used type from the ancient tree, Laurus nobilis.
It seems that various references to the bay leaf species of this aromatic plant can cause some confusion in regard to the true bay leaf, but to be a true bay leaf, it must come from the tree Laurus nobilis. It may also be called bay laurel or sweet bay.
The tree is an evergreen of the family Lauraceae, originating in the Mediterranean. The baby leaf is delicately fragrant with a bitter taste and holds about 2 percent essential oil. It’s most common to use the dried version of the whole leaf when cooking, then removing the leaf from the dish before serving.
One tablespoon (two grams) of crumbled bay leaf contains about:
- 5.5 calories
- 1.3 grams carbohydrates
- 0.1 gram protein
- 0.1 gram fat
- 0.5 gram fiber
- 0.1 milligram manganese (7 percent DV)
- 0.8 milligram iron (4 percent DV)
- 108 IU vitamin A (2 percent DV)
1. Antimicrobial and Antioxidant Qualities
Bay leaf, including bay leaf essential oil, offers antimicrobial and antioxidant benefits. A study conducted at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University focused on the antimicrobial and antioxidant activities of specific essential oils from white wormwood, rose-scented geranium and bay laurel on fresh produce against Salmonella and E. coli. All three essential oils showed antioxidant properties, with the highest activity occurring in bay laurel essential oil. (1)
2. May Prevent Candida and Contain Wound-Healing Benefits
Bay leaf has been shown to provide antifungal properties. A study published in the Archives of Oral Biology was conducted demonstrating the antifungal potential of the essential oil of bay laurel against candida. In the study, the bay laurel disrupted adhesion of candida to cell walls, therefore reducing its ability to penetrate the membrane, making it a great addition to a candida diet in order to combat this condition. (2)
In addition to fighting candida, bay leaf has been used as an extract and in a poultice to heal wounds in rats. While it wasn’t as effective in healing wounds as quickly or as effectively as the Allamanda cathartica. L. extract, the bay laurel extract did show improved wound healing compared to the control group. (3)
3. May Help Fight Cancer
Evaluation of the use of bay leaf extracts showed that both the leaves and fruits were potent against breast cancer cell models. The study notes bay leaf as a potential natural agent for breast cancer therapy by comparing cells that were induced with the extracts and those that were not. Cell death occurred in those that were induced, making bay leaf a possible natural cancer treatment option. (4)
Further research published in Nutrition and Cancer suggests that it may help fight colorectal cancer. In vitro studies were conducted using extracts of the bay leaf against colon cancer cell growth. By using a process of incorporating ingredients, such as bay leaf into food, results exhibited the potential for colon cancer-regulating properties, showing relevance to protection against colorectal cancer during early stages of detection. (5)
4. Could Be Useful for Diabetics
It’s possible that bay leaf can help lower blood sugar levels. Research suggests that by taking ground bay leaf two times per day, blood sugar levels and cholesterol levels (LDL) dropped in participants in the study. It’s important to note that this study included the regular medication that the subjects were using for diabetes. However, the benefits were positive, also showing that it increases the good cholesterol (HDL). (6)
Further research by the Journal of Clinical Biochemistry and Nutrition reveals that bay leaves may improve insulin function. The study was conducted to determine if bay leaves may help prevent and eliminate type 2 diabetes. Forty people were given varied amounts of bay leaf, in the form of a capsule, per day over a period of 30 days. All amounts reduced serum glucose and total cholesterol, but there were no significant changes in the placebo group.
The overall outcome shows that regular consumption of bay leaves may help decrease risk factors for diabetes and and even cardiovascular diseases. (7)
5. Aids Digestion
Bay leaves may have an impact on the gastrointestinal system by promoting urination, which helps release toxins in the body. Within bay leaves are certain organic compounds containing enzymes that may help eliminate an upset tummy and soothe irritable bowel syndrome, reducing bloating and gas.
In some cases, it has been known to decrease symptoms of celiac disease as well. Overall, the bay leaf may provide much relief by enhancing the digestion process and, therefore, increasing nutrient absorption. (8)
When purchasing, look for dried bay leaves that are blemish-free, making sure there are no cracks or tears. If you’re looking to purchase fresh bay leaves, seek out those that are bright green and waxy-looking, while allowing a bend and twist without tearing.
You can cook using the bay leaf whole, but make sure to remove whole bay leaves from your dish before serving to prevent choking. While the Turkish bay laurel is most popular, if you go for the California bay leaves, use about half the amount that a recipe calls for since it’s usually stronger in flavor. Store bay leaves by sealing them well, such as in a mason jar with an airtight lid. If stored properly, the dried leaves can last up to two years.
Bay leaf can add that special touch to most any dish. Try this spice blend on your favorite wild-caught fish or organic chicken:
Cacao Bay Leaf Chicken Rub
Makes about 3–4 servings; double or triple for more to store.
- 2 teaspoons ground bay leaf
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon maple syrup or honey
- ½ teaspoon cacao powder
- 1 teaspoon dried orange peel
- 1 teaspoon sweet or hot paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Pinch ground cayenne pepper
- Pinch sea salt
- Blend, using a whisk or fork, the ground bay leaf, orange peel, paprika, cacao, garlic powder, black pepper and cayenne pepper in a small bowl. Set aside.
- Now, blend the maple syrup or honey and olive oil together.
- Coat your meat of choice with this mixture, then sprinkle the meat with generous amounts of the rub. If you have time, allow it to marinate in the fridge for an hour or so.
- Bake or grill when ready.
Here are some more recipes that utilize this herb you can try:
- Hasselback Butternut Squash with Bay Leaves
- Bay Leaf-Braised Chicken With Chickpeas
- Split Pea Soup
- Lamb Stew
Bay Leaf Interesting Facts
The bay leaf goes way back to ancient times when wreaths of laurel were made to crown victorious athletes in ancient Greece, which inspired the famous crown for the winners of the Boston Marathon and the Olympics. Furthermore, it was Nike, also known as Victory and the origin of the name for the well-known Nike shoe, that led the path for the laurel wreath to adorn heads of athletes worldwide. Representing the goddess of strength, speed, victory, glory and fame, Nike flew around battlefields rewarding the winners with the now famous wreath of laurel leaves (bay leaves). (11)
Due to its menthol-like fragrance, early European settlers named the bay tree pepperwood. The Salinan Indians created a poultice to help those suffering with seizures by combining bay leaves with cinnamon, nutmeg and olive oil, and some tribes placed a single leaf into the nostril to cure headaches. It was even used to attract deer by some hunters. And let’s not forget the fun the Karok Indian children had tossing the leaves into a fire so that they would make a firecracker-like sound. (12)
Risks and Side Effects
While this herb is common in preparing food, you need to use caution when cooking with the whole bay leaf. It’s important to remember to pull it out of your sauces and stews to prevent someone from choking on it. If you have concerns, go for the dried, ground version. (13) The leaf itself is easily lodged, so it’s best not actually eat it. That’s why this herb is used in cooking and typically removed. That way, you can enhance the flavor and aroma without having to consume the whole leaf.
Though uncommon, if you notice any sort of allergic reaction, seek help as needed, as some people are allergic bay laurel.
Bay leaf is a classic spice that can be that special ingredient in almost any dish. Incorporating spices not only adds delicious flavor, but can offer many health benefits too. For instance, bay leaves or the essential oil derived from them have been shown to help prevent candida, heal wounds, potentially fight cancer and aid digestion.
Furthermore, they’re useful in diabetics due to evidence they can help manage blood sugar and lower cholesterol. This herb also holds antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, and while further research is needed to confirm the efficacy, evidence shows it may help treat dandruff, muscle and joint pain, and skin infections.
As you can see, this herb can do quite a bit. If you have haven’t cooked with bay leaf, start with small amounts. You can break bay leaves in half or use the fresh or ground versions — and start to get some of the great flavor and benefits this herb has to offer.
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