Spice Up Your Christmas
There’s nothing quite as evocative as the aroma of spices emanating from the kitchen during the festive season. Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without them. And this is no recent trend. Herbs and spices have been used for their culinary and medicinal properties since ancient times. They are known to have antioxidant, anti-microbial, and anti-inflammatory effects. With these beneficial effects coupled with the festive memories they conjure up, who wouldn’t want to spice up their Christmas?
Here’s the top ten of Christmas flavours and why you want to include them in your recipes this Christmas:
Black pepper is one of the most widely used spices in the world. Its distinct sharp flavour is attributed to the presence of the phytochemical, piperine. Piperine displays numerous properties including anti-tumor, antioxidant, anti-diabetic, anti-obesity, cardioprotective, antimicrobial, anti-aging, and immunomodulatory effects. Furthermore, piperine has been shown to have hepatoprotective, anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective properties (1). Black pepper also improves the bioavailability of beneficial compounds from other foods, most notably curcumin from turmeric.
How to Use: black pepper can be used to flavour more or less any savoury (and some sweet) dishes. Use freshly ground pepper for maximum benefits.
Cardamom is an aromatic seed spice grown extensively in India and used as a flavouring in sweet and savoury dishes. It is a rich source of phenolic compounds, volatile oils, with broad-spectrum activities including lowering blood pressure, anti-oxidant, lipid-modifying, anti-inflammatory, liver protective, cholesterol lowering, anti-obesity, and antidiabetic effects. It is shown to have cardioprotective effects and to reduce the effects of metabolic syndrome (2).
How to Use: Crack open the green pods with a pestle and mortar. The cardamom seeds can be added to curries and casseroles as well as adding a fragrant flavour to cakes and biscuits.
Cinnamon has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine and as a spice for its fragrance and flavour in a wide range of traditional dishes from around the world. Cinnamon is a rich source of health giving polyphenols. It has been shown to reduce blood glucose concentrations, enhance insulin signalling and the expression of proteins involved in glucose transport, and may regulate dyslipidaemia (3). It also has anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal effects.
How to Use: Add cinnamon to porridge, apple crumbles and cinnamon rolls. Stir your latte with a cinnamon stick or sprinkle some ground cinnamon on top.
Cloves have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities. They contain an aromatic oil, eugenol, which has broad spectrum antimicrobial activity, being active against fungi and a wide range of bacteria (4). Clove oil is traditionally used topically to treat toothache. It both numbs the pain and reduces the bacteria that may be causing the infection.
How to Use: Cloves are a good addition to mulled wine. Stud some oranges or other citrus fruits with clove buds and then simmer in wine and fruit juice.
Ginger root gets its flavour and aroma from phenolic compounds including gingerols and shogaols. It is a widely used in the treatment of nausea, inflammation, metabolic syndrome and digestive problems (5).
How to Use: Ginger root can be used in soups, curries and stir fries. Ground ginger and crystallised ginger make great baked treats such as ginger bread and ginger biscuits. Ginger tea is also a good post-prandial drink.
Nutmeg is known to have antidepressant effects involving serotonin and noradrenaline pathways (6). Nutmeg also contains a range of antibacterial compounds. However, many of the scientific references to nutmeg refer to its potentially toxic effects due to one of its major active compounds, which can cause hallucinations and convulsions. So, although the amounts used in cooking and drinks are unlikely to cause any problems, nutmeg should be treated with respect.
How to Use: Grate a little nutmeg onto custard tarts or eggnog.
Rosemary is widely used as a condiment and food preservative. Rosemary has analgesic, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, anti-anxiety and memory boosting properties. It shows clinical effects on mood, learning, memory, pain, anxiety, and sleep (7,8).
How to Use: Add rosemary to bread, roasted vegetables and nut roasts.
Sage has traditional uses as a brain enhancing tonic. Studies confirm that it has an array of compounds that enhance mood, cognitive activity, memory and attention and protect against neurodegenerative disease (9). Sage also contains anti-microbial properties and is traditionally used as a sore throat remedy.
How to Use: Sage and onion stuffing is a must have for any Christmas table. A Christmas pesto of sage blitzed up with hazelnuts or walnuts and olive oil is a tasty accompaniment to many savoury dishes.
Besides its use as a culinary spice star anise is a key ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It is known to have antiviral effects as well as antioxidant, antimicrobial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, gastroprotective, sedative and expectorant effects (10).
How to Use: Sage can be added to rice and other grains during cooking for an aniseedy flavour.
Turmeric, the golden spice, has long been recognized for its culinary and medicinal properties being the major source of the polyphenol curcumin. Curcumin aids in the management of oxidative and inflammatory conditions, metabolic syndrome, arthritis, anxiety, and hyperlipidemia. Combining curcumin with piperine from black pepper increases the bioavailability of curcumin by 2000% (11,12).
How to Use: Add to rice and curries or to a yoghurt lassi to soothe an upset stomach and strengthen digestion.
For more tips on how to enjoy eating over the festive season without sabotaging your health read the blog post Ten Tips for Healthy Eating Over Christmas. See the blog post Have a Happy Healthy Christmas for ideas on how to manage stress, alcohol intake and over excited children.
- 1. Phytother Res. 2021 Feb;35(2):680-700. Piperine: A review of its biological effects. Iahtisham-Ul Haq et al.
- 2. Iran J Basic Med Sci. 2021 Nov;24(11):1462-1469. The effect of Elettaria cardamomum (cardamom) on the metabolic syndrome: Narrative review. Yahyazadeh R et al.
- 3. J Pak Med Assoc. 2020 Nov;70(11):2065-2069. Is Cinnamon Efficacious for Glycaemic Control in Type-2 Diabetes Mellitus? Sharma S et al.
- 4. Crit Rev Microbiol. 2017 Nov;43(6):668-689. Antimicrobial activity of eugenol and essential oils containing eugenol: A mechanistic viewpoint. Marchese A et al.
- 5. 2020 Jan 6;12(1):157. Ginger on Human Health: A Comprehensive Systematic Review of 109 Randomized Controlled Trials. Nguyen Hoang Anh et al.
- 6. Biol Pharm Bull. 2022 Jun 1;45(6):738-742. Mechanisms and Safety of Antidepressant-Like Effect of Nutmeg in Mice. Iwata N et al.
- 7. Iran J Basic Med Sci. 2020 Sep;23(9):1100-1112. Therapeutic effects of rosemary ( Rosmarinus officinalis) and its active constituents on nervous system disorders. Rahbardar MG etl al.
- 8. J Biomed Sci. 2019 Jan 9;26(1):5. Rosmarinus officinalis L. (rosemary) as therapeutic and prophylactic agent. Jonatas Rafael de Oliveira et al.
- 9. Drugs R D. 2017 Mar;17(1):53-64. Salvia (Sage): A Review of its Potential Cognitive-Enhancing and Protective Effects. Lopresti AL.
- 10. Phytother Res. 2020 Jun;34(6):1248-1267. Star anise (Illicium verum): Chemical compounds, antiviral properties, and clinical relevance. Kumar Patra J et al.
- 11. Curr Drug Metab. 2022 Aug 25. A Unifying Perspective in Blunting the Limited Oral Bioavailability of Curcumin: A Succinct Look. Balakumar P et al.
- 12. 2017 Oct 22;6(10):92. Curcumin: A Review of Its Effects on Human Health. Hewlings SJ, Kalman DS.