McCormick Science Institute

Culinary Spices


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Culinary spices are seasonings used to flavor food that are derived from plants (1). 

Spices vs. Herbs

Generally speaking, spices come from different parts of a plant other than the leaves while herbs come from leaves of a plant.  Herbs are considered as a subset within the larger category of spices. It is interesting to note that some plants produce both a spice and an herb. An example of this would be Coriandrum sativum: the dried seed (coriander) is considered a spice while the leaf is used as an herb (cilantro) (1).
Culinary-Spices-3 Culinary-Spices-2

From a Euro-centric historical point of view, spices were rare and expensive ingredients from far away locations (such as black pepper from India).  Spices fueled the global spice trade and played a large role in European colonialism.  In contrast, many herbs are indigenous to the temperate climate of Europe and thus were not as rare and valuable. The international trade in spices was extremely lucrative, and civilizations arose around the spice trade throughout the Middle East, the Asian Silk Road to China, and in North Africa.  Learn more about the history of spices.

There are roughly 40 different spice (and herb) plants of global importance, and many more with local relevance (2).  Spices and herbs can be classified into various groups based on flavor (Table 1), the part of the plant where they came from (Table 2), or botanical classification (taxonomy) (3).

Table 1: four categories of common spices based on flavor classification 

Hot (Pungent) Spices:

black and white peppers, mustard, red pepper

Mild Flavored Spices:

paprika, coriander

Aromatic Spices:

clove, cumin, dill seed, fennel seed, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon

Aromatic Herbs and Vegetables:

thyme, basil, bay leaf, marjoram, shallot, onion, garlic


Table 2: categories of common spices based on part of the plant used

Part of the plant



basil, bay leaf, chive, cilantro, lemon grass, marjoram, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, savory, tarragon, thyme




cardamom, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, fenugreek, nutmeg, mustard, poppy, sesame

Flower/bud, pistil

clove, lavender, saffron


allspice, black pepper, red pepper, paprika, vanilla, star anise


onion, garlic, leek


horseradish, ginger, turmeric, wasabi



Botanically, spices are named according to genus and species. For instance, for ginger: the genus name is Zingiber and family name is officinale, thus ginger’s botanical name is Zingiber officinale.  Each spice also belongs to a larger family of plants.  In ginger’s case, the family is Zingiberaceae.  Turmeric (Curcuma longa) and cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) are two other spices that belong to the family Zingiberaceae.

In addition to making food taste good, culinary spices have been used since ancient times as food preservatives and for their health enhancing properties.  Learn more about the potential health benefits of spices.


  1. Peter, K. V., and K. Nirmal Babu. "Introduction to herbs and spices: medicinal uses and sustainable production." Handbook of herbs and spices. Woodhead Publishing, 2012. 1-16.
  2. Introduction. Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages. Retrieved 28 February 2021.
  3. Embuscado, Milda E. "Spices and herbs: Natural sources of antioxidants–a mini review." Journal of functional foods 18 (2015): 811-819.