Spicing for Health During the Holidays

Holiday spices offer nutrients with therapeutic effects—and delicious fat-free flavors
December 3, 2020 Updated: December 3, 2020

The holidays, especially this year, are a time to treat ourselves, our family, and our friends. Traditional holiday flavors, such as peppermint, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger, and cloves can add flavor and flare to holiday treats without adding extra fat, salt, or sugar. Holiday aromas can be incorporated into our environment, adding a calming and happy element.

Cinnamon

Cinnamon was highly regarded in ancient Egypt as a flavoring, a cure for disease, and as an ingredient in perfumes. In medieval times, cinnamon was used to treat coughs, sore throats, arthritis, and to help preserve food. Cinnamon contains a very small amount of fiber, which helps to provide a feeling of fullness, or satiety. This means we can savor and appreciate smaller servings of foods and beverages flavored with cinnamon. Consider a sprinkle of cinnamon in your hot cocoa, coffee, tea, or hot milk.

Cinnamon is harvested from the bark of several different types of trees, including evergreens and laurels. Cinnamon is available whole or in powder form for use in food, or as an essential oil for household use.

There are two main types of cinnamon: Ceylon cinnamon and cassia cinnamon. When shopping for cinnamon, if you have an option, select Ceylon, rather than cassia cinnamon.

Ceylon is scientifically known as Cinnamomum verum, or “true cinnamon.” Ceylon cinnamon has a sweeter, more delicate flavor than cassia.

Some studies have suggested that the compounds in cinnamon have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic, and antimicrobial properties.

In 2011, researchers concluded that diets rich in “antioxidant spices,” including cinnamon, may help reduce the body’s negative response to eating high-fat foods.

This could be helpful during the holidays, According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a teaspoon of ground cinnamon contains about 6 calories and a very small amount of calcium, iron, potassium, vitamin A, several antioxidants and trace amounts of some B vitamins and vitamin K.

Cinnamon adds flavor to foods and beverages without adding fat or sodium. You may find that you add less sugar to foods when cinnamon is used. Consider adding a very small amount of cinnamon to your morning hot or cold cereal, to cooking grains, to hot beverages, or to sauces. To create a holiday atmosphere, boil several cinnamon sticks with some orange slices in a small amount of water. The aroma will create a soothing, mellow holiday atmosphere.

Ginger

Ginger is a versatile flavoring. It can add familiar warmth or pungency to sweet and savory foods. Ginger is known for its ability to provide a sense of calm. To prevent holiday stress, sit back and sip a cup of hot ginger tea or a warm glass of milk flavored with ginger.

Ginger is a flowering plant that was first identified in Southeast Asia. It belongs to the Zingiberaceae family, and is closely related to turmeric, cardamom, and galangal. The underground portion of the stem is the part used as a seasoning.

Ginger has a long history in traditional and alternative medicine. It’s been used to aid digestion, reduce nausea, and help alleviate cold and flu symptoms. A 2019 literature review of functional foods concluded that ginger had a very positive effect on obesity and weight loss.

Ginger is available for use in food as fresh, dried, powdered, or oil versions. Use pickled ginger to add excitement, without additional calories, fat, or sodium, to holiday meals. Add a small amount of powdered ginger to hot beverages, hot cereal, mashed sweet potatoes, and fruit salads. Complete a meal with a pinch of candied ginger. Candied ginger is extremely flavorful; a small amount provides almost instant satiety. Use a small amount of ginger oil combined with distilled water in a sprayer to freshen a room.

Nutmeg

Warm, sweet, and aromatic, nutmeg is the quintessential holiday spice. Nutmeg adds a traditional note to holiday eggnog, pumpkin pie, and savory sauces. This exotic spice is known for its calming effect for the mind and body.

Nutmeg was originally identified in eastern Indonesia, harvested from the Myristica fragrans tree. The nutmeg seed has a lacy, red veil that is processed into mace, a spice with a milder, gentler aroma and golden color. The remaining dried seed is ground into nutmeg. If you would like really fresh nutmeg, with a side benefit of an aromatic room, purchase whole nutmeg and microplane as needed.

For centuries, nutmeg was considered very, very valuable. Great Britain brokered the deal for New York City from the Dutch in exchange for a nutmeg-producing Indonesian island.

Nutmeg is at home in both sweet and savory dishes, in soups and stews and cakes and cookies. Sprinkle nutmeg in rice pudding or custards, over ice cream or pies, in potato dishes and creamy sauces and soups. If you would like to create an instant holiday environment, microplane nutmeg into an attractive saucer and sprinkle with a very small amount of warm water. The aromatic essential oils found in nutmeg will stay activated for hours.

In the Middle Ages, nutmeg was considered so potent it was thought to ward off the plague. Over the years, antibacterial, digestion-boosting, and nervous system-calming properties have been attributed to nutmeg.

 Nutmeg has compounds that have antibacterial action against a broad range of disease-causing bacteria. This has been demonstrated by the use of nutmeg as a food preservative. In the course of normal metabolism, our cells produce free radicals, which can cause cell damage. Nutmeg has several active compounds that mop up these free radicals, meaning they act as antioxidants to relieve cellular stress.

Cloves

Cloves are sourced from an evergreen tree that grows in Asia and South America. Cloves provide fragrance to foods and to the home. Cloves are rich in antioxidants, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids. Cloves contain natural eugenol oil, which can act as a natural anesthetic.

It’s important to use cloves sparingly, as they can overpower a dish, and can leave your mouth numb. Add a very small amount of cloves to cooking grains, such as barley or quinoa, to hot cereals, to hot beverages and to creamy soups or sauces. Cloves create so much flavor, you may be able to reduce the amount of fat or sugar used in some dishes. To create a holiday fragrance, simmer a handful of cloves with some cinnamon sticks on the stove, or bake cloves and cinnamon on a baking sheet, in a 200 degree F oven, with the door slightly ajar.

According to nutrition data, one teaspoon of ground cloves contains 30 percent of the RDI of the mineral manganese, 4 percent of the RDI of vitamin K, 3 percent of the RDI of vitamin C, and trace amounts of calcium, magnesium, and vitamin E and fiber.

In Germany, Commission E, a government agency equivalent to the U.S. FDA, has approved clove for use as a topical antiseptic and anesthetic. Clove oil is known as a remedy for toothache and dental pain. In a 2006 study researchers found that clove-based gel was comparable to benzocaine (a local anesthetic) in its ability to ease pain resulting from injections in the mouth.

Peppermint

Peppermint is a cross between two types of mints: water mint and spearmint. Thousands of years ago, the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used peppermint as medicine. Peppermint was traditionally used as a treatment for digestive problems, nausea, cold, and cramps. Before there was Vicks, peppermint was used as a chest rub to ease coughs.

Edible peppermint is available as fresh or dried leaves and peppermint syrup or extract. Fresh or dried peppermint leaves can be stirred into hot tea, coffee, hot cocoa, or warm milk for a refreshing holiday break. Add shredded fresh peppermint to green or fruit salads and to poultry and seafood dishes. Peppermint can create flavoring which allows you to use less sugar or salt. For a lower calorie treat, melt a tablespoon of dark chocolate chips in the microwave, sprinkle with shredded, fresh peppermint leaves, and enjoy! Peppermint for household use is available as an essential oil. Create a holiday room freshening spray by combining a few drops of peppermint oil with distilled water.

The aromas of holiday spices help create lasting memories of the season. Even better, creative flavoring can help to reduce the amount of fat, salt, or sugar you need to keep holiday dishes delicious. Experiment with a variety of healthy flavorings to enliven your meals and your home during this holiday season!

Dr. Nancy Berkoff is a registered dietitian, food technologist, and culinary professional. She divides her time between health care and culinary consulting, food writing, and healthy living.