Last week we looked at how to select spices and did a deeper dive into five that are used commonly during the holidays. This week, in the second half of this article, we look at five additional spices:
Ginger is the root of the Zingiber officinale plant, which has been cultivated in India and China for more than 5000 years. If used fresh, it’s considered an herb, whereas the dried powdered root is considered a spice. Gingerbread, one the main holiday flavor profiles, contains ginger along with other warming spices. You can also find ginger in some teas, mulling spices, cocktails, and other holiday baked goods.
You may know ginger as an anti-nausea and anti-gas remedy. It is also known to have antimicrobial and antioxidant action and may have protective effects on blood pressure. Finally, it can boost brain function by increasing serotonin and dopamine levels. Gingerol is the active component in ginger; higher amounts of gingerol can be found in the fresh root rather than in dried powder.
Ginger is one of the GGOBE (ginger, garlic, onion, brassica sprouts, and eggs) superfoods that support healthy detoxication. Ginger is beneficial as a part of a wholesome diet, but we recommend avoiding the unnaturally high amounts seen in ginger capsules. Ginger contains the B vitamins thiamine, riboflavin and niacin; vitamin C, iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, copper, selenium and zinc.
Nutmeg is the seed of Myristica fragrans, an evergreen tree found in Banda Islands in Indonesia. Although found in potshards dating back more than 3000 years, it was “discovered” in 1512 by Portuguese explorers and brought back to Europe. Fun fact: The spice “mace” comes from the same tree, from a bright red aril that surrounds the seed, but has different chemical constituents and taste.
Nutmeg is a key note in eggnog and mulling spices and can be added sparingly to meats and other holiday recipes to impart a festive flavor. It has antioxidant and antimicrobial properties and has been reported in small studies to improve mood and sleep. Nutmeg contains vitamins A, C, and E as well as manganese, magnesium, copper, phosphorous, zinc and iron.
Peppermint (Mentha piperita) is technically an herb, rather than a spice, that is a cross between spearmint and water mint. It is indigenous to Europe and the Middle East. Candy canes are flavored with peppermint oil, and mint can be found in many holiday treats either alone or paired with chocolate.
Peppermint has a long history of medicinal use, and peppermint leaf tea is a popular tea used to relieve an upset stomach. There are compounds in the herb that relax tissue in the GI tract, so it can help ease symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. It’s also antimicrobial, and sniffing the oil helps boost energy and sharpen focus. The active menthol in peppermint has also been helpful for migraine relief. Rosmarinic acid in peppermint can reduce histamine reactions, so peppermint may be helpful during allergy season.
Peppermint has more than 80 nutrients! It is packed with vitamins A and C, niacin, riboflavin, folate, phosphorous, zinc, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, manganese and copper among others.
Sage is an herb that might be more associated with Thanksgiving, as it’s a common ingredient in holiday stuffing. The leaves of the evergreen shrub Salvia officinalis can be used fresh, dried, rubbed, or powdered, and bring a warm complexity to a dish.
Sage has long been used as a medicinal herb; the Romans used it to aid digestion and to treat wounds, sore throats, and ulcers. It is loaded with antioxidants, with more than 160 distinct polyphenols identified. Sage is also antimicrobial, and may support memory and brain health, lower cholesterol, support bone health, and combat skin aging.
Sage is a rich source of B vitamins, vitamins A and C, potassium, zinc, calcium, iron, manganese, copper, and magnesium.
Fun fact: vanilla comes from the seed pods of a tropical orchid! There are three species available commercially: Mexican or Bourbon vanilla (vanilla planifolia), Tahitian vanilla (vanilla tahitiensis), and West Indian vanilla (vanilla pompona). Another fun fact… flowers and ripe seed pods have no aroma! The characteristic “vanilla” smell and taste develop from enzymatic reactions that take place during the curing and drying process. Mexican/Bourbon vanilla is the most common and flavorful. True vanilla extract is made from crushed vanilla pods that are extracted with alcohol. Organic vanilla beans can be scraped for good flavor without the alcohol.
You can use vanilla beans whole by either scraping the seed or soaking the entire pod. The easiest way to extract vanilla beans from a pod is to gently slice the pod open using a paring knife. Then, simply scrape the inner flesh of the pod with the edge of your knife to remove the beans.
Most imitation vanilla is currently made from synthetic vanillin and corn syrup. Most of today’s synthetic vanillin comes from petrochemicals or from lignin, a byproduct of paper manufacturing. Back in the day, some imitation vanilla was sourced from castoreum from the anal glands of beavers. Now castoreum is more widely used in the perfume industry to suggest vanilla notes and is less likely to appear in food products.
The scent of vanilla has a calming effect. Natural vanilla has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and may protect brain health. Because of its natural sweetness, you may be able to decrease the amount of sugar in your recipes.
Vanilla contains traces of B vitamins, manganese, magnesium, calcium, zinc, and potassium.
While all of these spices have health-promoting activity, many scientific studies used high doses or purified extracts of individual components. As a rule, we recommend eating a wide variety of whole foods prepared in a variety of different ways, and that includes using fresh organic spices.
Try spicing up your holiday cooking and enjoy the many flavors of the season!