The good news is that these spices not only provide great flavor to your holiday treats, they also have health benefits and can be used year-round in all sorts of dishes—from sweet to savory. Here’s the 411 on some of holiday’s most popular spices and flavorings.
Cinnamon This warm, bittersweet spice obtained from the inner bark of several trees from the genus cinnamomum, is often used in Indian and Moroccan dishes.
Health Benefits: Research suggests that cinnamon may play a role in keeping blood sugar levels stable, reducing inflammation, and fighting off bacteria, although more research is needed.
Types: While Cinnamomum verum is sometimes considered to be “true cinnamon,” most cinnamon in international commerce is derived from related species, which are also referred to as “cassia” to distinguish them from true cinnamon.
– Cinnamomum verum (“true cinnamon,” Sri Lanka cinnamon or Ceylon cinnamon)
– burmannii (Korintje, Padang cassia, or Indonesian cinnamon)
– loureiroi (Saigon cinnamon, Vietnamese cassia, or Vietnamese cinnamon)
– cassia (Cassia or Chinese cinnamon)
Uses: Sprinkle on yogurt, apple slices, or oatmeal for an instant flavor boost. Add a pinch to your coffee or tea. Or try cinnamon as a rub for Middle Eastern-inspired lamb, chicken, or stew meats.
Nutmeg This warm, delicate spice, also known as “pala” in Indonesia, is most often commercially derived from an evergreen tree species in the Spice Islands of Indonesia.
Health Benefits: Nutmeg has traditionally been used as an antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory agent. Some believe that topically applying nutmeg will help soothe sore muscles. A word of caution though, a little goes a long way. In extremely large amounts, nutmeg can cause psychoactivity leading to heart palpitations and delirium, but a teaspoon here or there is just right for adding flavor to many dishes.
Types: While not technically two types of nutmeg, two types of spices are derived from the same tree. Nutmeg, which is the seed of the tree, and mace, which is the lace-like, red coating, or aril, of the seed. Nutmeg and mace have similar aromatic qualities, although nutmeg is slightly sweeter and mace is more delicate in flavor.
Uses: Use in baked goods such as cookies or cakes, for a sweet-spice characteristic. Nutmeg is particularly good as a seasoning for winter produce such as acorn squash, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin. It can even add complexity to simple veggie dishes, such as sautéed spinach.
Cloves This warm, sweet spice is also primarily commercially harvested in Indonesia and are the flowers buds to a native evergreen tree in the area.
Health Benefits: In Chinese medicine, clove oil is used as a painkiller for dental emergencies. Clove oil is also used in the preparation of some toothpastes and Clovacaine solution, an oral antiseptic used for oral ulceration and inflammation. However, most research on the health benefits of cloves remains inconclusive at this time.
Types: Although cloves are grown in several different countries, the origin makes little difference in the quality of the cloves. Instead, the quality is determined by the amount of eugenol oil that the cloves contain, as this oil is what gives them their distinct aroma. Cloves with an oil content of 15% or more are considered high quality.
Uses: Cloves are used in many ethnic cuisines to season meats, curries, and marinades. Also, try them with fruits such as apples and pears, or use them as they are traditionally used in Mexican fare—with cumin.
Peppermint Believe it or not, this herb is actually a hybrid between watermint and spearmint and is originally from Europe and the Middle East.
Health Benefits: Peppermint is said to alleviate digestive issues, so try sipping on a cup of peppermint tea. When applied topically, peppermint oil may help to alleviate pain—so try a little rubbed into your temples next time you have a headache. It also may have antimicrobial properties—no wonder chewing on mint leaves can help with bad breath!
Types: Although there is just one type of peppermint, it is a hybrid of watermint, which can be used to make herbal tea, and spearmint, whose oil is often used to flavor toothpaste, gum, and candies.
Uses: Peppermint is the oldest and most popular of mint flavored foods and drinks, such as tea, ice cream, candies, and gum.
Allspice Allspice, called pimento in Jamaica is one of the primary ingredients (along with scotch bonnet peppers) in jerk seasoning. Allspice, which is grown in Jamaica, has a flavor and aroma that is a blend of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg.
Health Benefits: Allspice is often used to treat intestinal gas, indigestion, and heavy menstrual bleeding; however, more research is needed to support the effectiveness of using allspice to treat these conditions.
Types: Although several fragrant shrubs, such as Japanese Allspice and Carolina Allspice, have allspice in the name, they are unrelated to the culinary allspice, which only comes from the Pimenta dioica tree.
Uses: Allspice is great to use as a part of a spice rub for various meats and poultry. It can also be used in various baked goods and when preparing French dressing, beets, baked beans, carrots, and squash