November 2016 Issue
Herbs and Spices: Holiday Spices
By Densie Webb, PhD, RD
Vol. 18, No. 11, P. 14
Research shows they contain antioxidants
and anti-inflammatory properties.
The holidays are upon us, and that usually means lots of time in the kitchen whipping up traditional holiday dishes that call for traditional holiday spices such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, sage, anise, allspice, and cardamom. While the scents wafting from the oven and the mouthwatering flavors are reasons enough to stock the spice rack for holiday baking, all of these spices are rich in natural plant compounds that have been studied for their health-promoting and disease-preventing properties.
Each of the spices has a rich history in traditional medicine, and some have been the object of extensive research and found to be beneficial. In fact, they're recommended in several food pyramids, including the Oldways African Heritage, Vegetarian & Vegan, and Mediterranean Diet Pyramids, as well as the Australian Health Eating Pyramid. Here's a review of what to tell clients when they ask about holiday spices.
While many may be fooled by the name or the taste (akin to a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves), allspice is a unique spice all its own. As one of the essential spices for pecan pie, fruitcake, and apple cider, most kitchens have it on hand for the holidays. Several compounds found in allspice, such as quercetin, gallic acid, and ericifolin, have demonstrated antitumor activities in laboratory studies and in animals.1 As with cinnamon and cloves, the antioxidant compound eugenol is in abundance. In fact, eugenol composes 60% to 90% of the essential oil extracted from allspice berries. Allspice has been used in folk medicine for centuries to treat everything from colds to menstrual cramps.
With its licoricelike flavor, most people either love it or hate it, but anise is a tradition in many homes during the holidays, usually as a flavoring in cookies. One of the oldest medicinal plants, anise seeds have been found in studies to have antimicrobial, antifungal, antiviral, antioxidant, muscle relaxant, analgesic, and anticonvulsant activity as well as having beneficial effects on the gastrointestinal system.2 Studies also have shown that anise can alleviate the side effects of postmenopausal hot flashes.3 And a recent study found that anise possesses antidepressantlike activity similar to that of the antidepressant fluoxetine.4
While cardamom may not be a traditional holiday spice, it can add flavor to traditional foods, such as pumpkin zucchini bread or honeyed baby carrots. Enclosed in fruit pods of the cardamom plant are tiny, brown, aromatic seeds. Available in ground or seed form, cardamom imparts a pungent sweet flavor to foods. Cineole, the major active component of cardamom oil, which is drawn from the seeds, is a potent antiseptic, effective against oral bacteria and Candida albicans.5 Suspensions of cardamom have been shown to decrease lipid peroxidation and increase levels of glutathione S-transferase, a detoxifying enzyme.6 Research also has strongly suggested that cardamom can boost the immune system and enhance the activity of natural killer cells, which aid in the destruction of cancer cells.7
Of all the holiday spices, cinnamon is probably the most familiar and most widely used. In addition to the warm flavor and aroma of powdered cinnamon and cinnamon sticks, the spice has been studied for its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antilipemic, antidiabetic, antimicrobial, and anticancer effects. The ability of cinnamon and cinnamon extracts to lower blood sugar is the most studied aspect of the health effects of this spice. A meta-analysis of 10 randomized controlled trials found that 120 mg per day to 6 g per day for approximately four months led to a significant decrease in levels of fasting plasma glucose, along with improvements in lipid profiles.8 The cinnamaldehyde component of cinnamon is responsible for its antimicrobial properties,9 and its eugenol content provides important antioxidant compounds. Cinnamon extract also may impede the growth of tumor cells by way of its polyphenol component.10
Whether cloves are used in hams, gingerbread, or steaming hot cider, this spice is one of the richest sources of antioxidant phenolic compounds, such as eugenol, eugenol acetate, and gallic acid, which provide potent antioxidant and antimicrobial activities.11 Available as a powder or individual pods, cloves have antimicrobial effects against several bacteria and fungal strains.12 Eugenol is the main bioactive component of cloves, and clove oil has shown potential in interfering with several cell-signaling pathways that suppress apoptosis and encourage proliferation, invasion, and metastasis of cancer cells.13 Most of the research with cloves has been done with clove oil, which has demonstrated a wide range of benefits from prevention of skin cancer14 to its use as an antimicrobial agent for oral infections.15
An ingredient in a Christmas gingerbread house or a hot toddy at Thanksgiving, ginger is known as much for its potential contribution to health as it is for being an essential part of holiday season goodies. Ginger is probably best known for its ability to tame nausea, motion sickness, and indigestion. The compounds believed to provide health benefits include pungent gingerols, shogaols, paradols, and zingerone.16 It is these compounds that have been studied and account for ginger's antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antinausea, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory properties. Study findings have been promising enough to lead researchers to suggest that the compounds found in ginger could aid in the development of therapeutic agents to treat a variety of conditions, including cancer.17
Whether it's sprinkled on top of a cup of eggnog or as part of pumpkin pie, fragrant nutmeg is a familiar holiday spice and is available ground or whole. The whole seed (despite the name, it's not a nut) can be grated to create fresh nutmeg. But it doesn't just add holiday flavor; nutmeg has been shown to possess strong antioxidant and antimicrobial activities and has been used in traditional Ayurvedic, Chinese, and Thai medicine.18,19 Nutmeg contains phytonutrients including beta-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin and it has a long list of curative properties, such as improving blood circulation to the brain, enhancing sleep, and acting as an aphrodisiac.20 A mouse study found that nutmeg decreased the development of intestinal tumors and normalized lipid metabolism.21 The flavor and therapeutic actions are believed to be due to the oil it contains.
What would the holidays be without savory sage stuffing? Sage is a member of the mint family that possesses well-studied antioxidant properties resulting from the presence of rosmarinic and carnosic acids.22 Tea made from sage leaves, as well as essential oils derived from the leaves, have been used in traditional medicine to treat digestive and circulation problems and several other conditions.23 Two small studies suggest that sage may improve mood and mental performance in healthy young people, and memory and attention in older adults. Results of another small clinical study suggest that a sage extract was better than placebo at enhancing learning and cognition in older adults with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease. There are also laboratory studies suggesting that essential oils from sage may have antimicrobial properties.24
So this holiday season encourage clients to use these spices in the foods and desserts they prepare for family and friends. The spices will not only fill kitchens and homes with mesmerizing aromas but also provide antioxidant properties that can help enhance their health.
— Densie Webb, PhD, RD, is a freelance writer, editor, and industry consultant based in Austin, Texas.
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18. Gupta AD, Bansal VK, Babu V, Maithil N. Chemistry, antioxidant and antimicrobial potential of nutmeg (Myristica fragrans Houtt). J Genet Eng Biotechnol. 2013;11(1):25-31.
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24. Sage. National institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website.
https://nccih.nih.gov/health/sage#science. Updated May 10, 2016.