Spice up the holidays, because it’s good for you

WASHINGTON — Gingerbread cookies, hot mulled wine and peppermint candy canes are just some of the more delicious aspects of the holiday season.

Lean Plate Club™ blogger Sally Squires says some of the holiday spices and flavorings that are most closely linked with the holidays have great health benefits, too. They include cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, star anise and peppermint. Some are buds, some are bark, others are berries or seeds, some are roots — and they’re found in a variety of food and drinks that are popular this time of year.

Cinnamon has been around forever — or almost forever — since 2800 B.C., so it’s one of the oldest known spices. In China they call it “kwai,” and it comes from the inner bark of several tree species. Moses used oil and cinnamon to anoint a person and make them holy. Romans used it for medicinal purposes, particularly for the digestive and respiratory tract, and to fend off odors during funerals.

In ancient Egypt, aside from adding fragrance and flavoring, cinnamon was used to embalm mummies. In fact, cinnamon is one of the reasons for Christopher Columbus’ exploration and for Vasco da Gama’s trips to South India and Sri Lanka. In the 21st century, it was recognized as a flavor that helps reduce the need for added sugars. Medical researchers are looking at it as a possible treatment for a many diseases including cancer, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease as well as its properties that make it a brain enhancer and an antimicrobial agent.

Gingerbread cookies and gingerbread houses are a special feature of the holiday season. And ginger also has plenty of benefits. It’s an ancient root that’s been used for the treatment of numerous ailments, such as colds, nausea, arthritis, migraines and hypertension. Ginger is a member of the plant family that includes cardamom and turmeric. It tastes somewhat peppery and slightly sweet, with a strong and spicy aroma. You can eat ginger fresh, dried, pickled, preserved, crystallized, candied and powdered or ground — and it’s easily available in many grocery stores.

In the 13th and 14th centuries, the value of a pound of ginger was equivalent to the cost of a sheep. By medieval times, it was being imported in preserved form to be used in sweets. Queen Elizabeth I of England is credited with inventing the gingerbread man, which became a popular Christmas treat. As a matter of fact, for the past 14 years, the National Institutes of Health hosted an annual gingerbread house contest at the clinical center. Scientists are still figuring out how ginger works in the body. They know it accumulates in the GI tract, and it purportedly has the ability to decrease inflammation, swelling and pain. It’s often used to counteract nausea.

If you’re thinking of getting cinnamon and ginger and maybe other spices through supplements — Sally says maybe you ought to think again. It’s best to stick with teas or spices in various other forms. Supplements have sometimes had dangerous interactions. So, if you decide to try the supplements with one of these ingredients, be sure to inform your doctor and pharmacist so there are no interactions with any other medications you’re taking, either prescription or over the counter.

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