National Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix


Spice It Up

Grade Level(s)

9 - 12

Estimated Time

Four, 45-minute activities


In this lesson students will recognize the difference between a spice and herb, learn how herbs and spices are grown on farms around the world, and be introduced to the many uses for these agricultural commodities


  • Herb seeds, potting soil, peat pots
  • Computer with internet access
  • My Culture and Spice worksheet
  • Spices Around the World map

Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)


herb: flavorings that come from the vegetative part of the plant, most often the leaves and roots

phytonutrient: natural chemicals produced by plant foods that help protect plants from germs, fungi, bugs, and other threats

spice: flavoring that most often comes from seeds, seed pods and fruit of the plant

Did you know? (Ag Facts)

  • Peppercorns have been used to spice up foods for more than 4,000 years. As early as the 4th century BC, texts describe pepper being used as a seasoning for Indian feasts.2
  • Nutmeg trees actually produce two spices: nutmeg and mace.3
  • It is suspected that the origins of chili powder date to frontier chuck wagons. The first commercial chili powder was sold in the late 1800s. Chili powder is a blend that usually contains chiles, onion, garlic, cumin and other spices.2

Background Agricultural Connections

Herbs and spices have been used by people for centuries for culinary, medicinal and even religious purposes. In general, herbs are considered those flavorings that come from the vegetative part of the plant, most often leaves and roots. Herbs such as parsley, bay leaves, oregano, summer savory, thyme, sage, basil, and marjoram are leaves.

Spices are most often seeds, seed pods, and fruit (usually dried). Black pepper, chili pepper, nutmeg, sesame, mace, mustard, vanilla, chocolate, kola, celery seed, turmeric, and almond are seeds, seed pods or fruit. Of course, there are exceptions – ginger is from a root, cinnamon is from the bark of a tree, and saffron is the actually stamens of crocus flowers.

Sources: Plants produce chemicals for a number of reasons - to repel or discourage pests from eating them, to encourage pollinators and to encourage some animals to eat them and disperse the seeds while repelling others. For example, scientists have discovered that mammals can experience the heat of spicy hot peppers while birds cannot. Pepper seeds traveling through the digestive systems of mammals are damaged or even digested by some mammals. When the remnants are spread in the animal’s waste, the seeds are no longer capable of germinating and producing new plants. However, pepper seeds digested by a bird pass through its system unharmed, are spread in the environment, and then germinate and produce new plants. So the bird is the preferred consumer of pepper fruits. Mammals are not. The hot spice of the peppers dissuades mammals from consuming peppers leaving them available for birds to eat.

History of Herbs and Spices: Herbs and spices have been used for thousands of years as medicines long before modern medicine developed drugs. Some plants do produce chemicals that are beneficial as medicines. In fact, even today, about a quarter of all modern medicines are synthesized from plants. Willow bark tea has been used by many societies to relieve pain and reduce inflammation. The active property is salicylic acid, which is a plant hormone, and is the ingredient that makes aspirin effective at reducing pain and inflammation as a metabolite of aspirin. Modern research is currently examining medicinal claims about a wide range of herbal remedies and possibilities of plant materials. It is finding truth in some claims, cancer cures in others and no substance at all in others. The whole field of anti-oxidants and phytonutrient research (such as the often-hyped resveratrol) is just beginning. Plants produce chemicals that provide a wide array of scents and flavors. Humans use these in cooking to create an immense variety of foods. Each culture has specific flavors that make their cuisine unique and part of their culture. Some of these flavors and scents will be well known by students and others will be new experiences.

Interest Approach – Engagement

  1.  Introduce the lesson by asking students what the spice, vanilla is?  Allow students to guess or share their background knowledge about the vanilla bean.  Show the 4 minute video clip, "Vanilla: The Journey from Source to Table."  After watching the video review and answer questions such as:
    • "Where is the vanilla bean grown?" (Mexico, Madagascar, Comoros, and Reunion)
    • "How did the introduction of the vanilla flavor by Hernando Cortez affect the demand for the vanilla flavor in other parts of the world?"  (as the vanilla spice was introduced in Europe, demand grew.  Although it could not be grown in Europe, the vanilla bean could be imported from it's country of origin)
    • "How did advances in science improve the cultivation of the vanilla bean?" (Charles Morren discovered how to hand pollinate the flowers rather than relying on bees for pollination)
  2. With this introduction to vanilla assess the prior knowledge of your students with the following questions:
    • "What is the difference between a spice and herb?"
    • "How are common spices and herbs produced and processed?"
    • "How has the production, use, and trade of spices influenced cultures through history?"
    • "Which countries produce the most commonly used culinary spices?"
    • "What are phytonutrients?"


 Activity One: Identifying Spices and Herbs

  1. Grow herbs in containers or in the school garden if availablce.  Basil, chives, dill, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage and tarragon are easily grown and several will be familiar scents to students.  Plant seeds in peat pots indoors to begin growth six to eight weeks prior to planting the school garden.  Transplant seedlings into the school garden after the danger of frost has passed. Once the plants are growing well, keep them trimmed by harvesting the leaves and prevent the herbs from flowering and setting seed. (Annual plants will often die after setting seed.)  
  2. When the herbs are growing well, snip off portions of leaves and stems.  Crush the herb cuttings to release the essential oils and place them into small paper bags.
  3. In class, have a blind smelling test by placing herbs in paper bags. Have students sniff the herbs and try to identify which herb it is and/or what foods this herb might be used in. Place a number on each bag and have the students write down what they think they smell. Once the entire class is done guessing go over the correct answers.
  4. Have students select one of the herbs grown in the school garden and research what vitamins, minerals and/or phytonutrients the herb provides.
  5. Use the attached PowerPoint to define the difference between herbs and spices. Herbs are commonly referred to as the leaves and stems of non-woody plants that are generally grown in temperate regions. Spices are commonly referred to as the seeds, fruit, woody portions, or flavorings grown in tropical regions.


If you are unable to grow your own herbs, you may adapt this lesson by obtaining herb plants from the garden section of a local store or nursery.  You may also substitute fresh herbs with dried kitchen herbs and spices if needed.  

Activity Two: History & Culture of Spices

  1. Use “Spices History” video by Taylor Roberts to introduce the large variety of spices and herbs.  Begin making cultural connections with the students.  This video has only images, words, and music. Discuss that the food flavors we enjoy today come from around the world.  Some may also be grown locally near your home.  The growth and uses for spices and herbs have a deep history.
  2. Using the McCormick Science Institute website, introduce students to the uses for herbs and spices through history.  Summarize and give an overview of each time period.
  3. Have students complete the, My Culture & Spice assignment.  Use the blank grading rubric at the bottom of the worksheet to determine the assignment requirements.  Ideas for student presentations include completing a PowerPoint, posterboard, video, flyer, etc.
  4. Make a copy of the Spices Around the World map for each student.  Direct the students to the website, Adventures in Spice. Instruct students to use the website to identify the country or countries where common spices are grown.  Have students color in each spice producing country using colored pencils or crayons.  When the assignment is complete, students will be able to see all of the countries in the world that commonly produce culinary spices.
    • Adjust assignment based upon time and resources available.  Students will need a world map to identify some of the countries on their worksheet.  Only a few of the countries are currently labeled.
    • Students can simply color in the countries or you can require them to list the spices and label the countries as well.

Activity Three: Herbal Medicines and Phytonutrients

  1. Herbal remedies are believed by some to provide nutritional enhancements, preventative medicinal approaches, or curative alternatives to modern medicines.
  2. Discuss how herbal treatments have been used as medicines for thousands of years. In fact, for most of that time those were the only medicines available and there is validity to that use. Today, more than 25 percent of our medicines come directly from plant sources. We are learning more every day not just about nutrition but about phytonutrients. Ask: “What are phytonutrients?”
  3. Have students research phytonutrients and create a poster project in teams of two or three students. Credible information sources can be found by searching the USDA website and library.  

Activity Four: Herbal Supplements

  1. Ask students what herbal supplements they have heard of and make a master list. If they have not heard of any, assign them to find some herbal rememedies through an internet source or health food store.  Have students read about the uses and claims of herbal supplements.  Prepare and provide examples to your students.
  2. Divide the class into three groups and prepare for a class debate on the use of herbal supplements as nutritional supplements that improve human health, and prevent and cure disease.
    • Group 1: Research the positives points about herbs that are currently being promoted and/or sold as nutritional supplements, preventative medicines, or currative disease medication.
    • Group 2: Research the negative points to challenge those claims and be on the “con” side of the debate.
    • Group 3:  The third group will be the judges and decide the outcome of the debate. This group should have no more than five team members. This group will develop a rubric to evaluate the debate, research challenges they can make to the debaters on both sides and create questions to pose during the debate.
      • The debate should include:
        • Opening statements from both sides.
        • A challenge by both sides.
        • Following each opening statement, judges should pose questions and solicit responses to those questions from both sides.
        • Closing statements from both sides.
      • Have students access the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health at ( This website an excellent source of information for a summary of the research findings that are based on sound, peer-reviewed science. Prepare for a debate about the advisability of using these herbs for their promoted purpose.
      • Include whether they are effective for their promoted purpose, if the research is conclusive, if research is being conducted and if there are any warnings for consuming this herb or interactions with medicines or foods.
      • Require students to provide a list of sources used to support their claims and indicate that they will receive a grade on their reference list.
      • Conduct the debate and have students score the process and results.
      • Discuss the information presented and what evaluating the claims means to students. Ask if debating the use of these products has informed the students, encouraged the use of these items or discouraged the use of these items. What process will the student use in the future to examine claims about the health benefits of these products?

Concept Elaboration and Evaluation

After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:

  • Herbs and spices are grown on farms throughout the world.
  • Many herbs and spices require very specific types of climates for growth. Some spices can only be produced in very select areas.
  • The demand for herbs and spices was historically a driving force of the global economy. Although transportation and shipping is easier today, herbs and spices are still part of global trade and economics.
  • Like other products, herbs and spices are produced in response to consumer demand.

We welcome your feedback! Please take a minute to tell us how to make this lesson better or to give us a few gold stars!


Enriching Activities

  • Have a chef come in or work with the culinary arts department to cook with the herbs, determine food pairing, or just discuss how to cook with herbs and spices for healthy low sodium options.

  • Have students make a list of dishes that would not have the same recognizable smells and flavors without herbs and spices. Examples include:

    Turkey Dressing Sage, Onion
    Pizza Oregano, Garlic, Bay Leaves
    Apple Pie Cinnamon, Nutmeg
    Ginger Bread, Gingersnaps, Gingerale            Ginger
    Spaghetti Bay leaves, Onion, Garlic
    Sweet Bread and Butter Pickles Garlic
    Dill Pickles Dill, garlic
    Pumpkin Pie Cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice

Suggested Companion Resources

Agricultural Literacy Outcomes

Culture, Society, Economy & Geography

  • Communicate how the global agricultural economy and population influences the sustainability of communities and societies (T5.9-12.a)
  • Discuss the relationship between geography (climate and land), politics, and global economies in the distribution of food (T5.9-12.f)
  • Provide examples of how changes in cultural preferences influence production, processing, marketing, and trade of agricultural products (T5.9-12.j)

Education Content Standards


Health Standard 2: Analyze the influence of family, peers, culture, media, technology, and other factors on health behaviors.

  • 2.8.3
    Describe the influence of culture on health beliefs, practices, and behaviors.


5-12 History Era 1 Standard 2A:The stages of European oceanic and overland exploration, amid international rivalries, from the 9th to 17th centuries.

  • Objective 5
    Objective 5
    Evaluate the course and consequences of the Columbian Exchange.

Common Core Connections

Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards

    Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
    Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
    Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Writing: Anchor Standards

    Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
    Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.
    Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.


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