Christmas spice and all things nice

Christmas-time is closely associated with feasting on special foods and (dare we say it?) gross overindulgence that ends only after bells have rung in the New Year.

But many of the seasonal treats we enjoy also have a healthy aspect. If eaten in the right quantities. And not smothered in cream…


Stuck in an orange or used to flavour the fat of a roast ham, cloves have an enduring scent that, sniffed at any other time of the year, instantly prompts yuletide memories.

For some, though, the taste elicits less pleasant associations: of toothache. Cloves or clove oil applied to the affected tooth can help reduce pain, and may also reduce infection thanks to the antibacterial properties of the compound eugenol.


Cinnamon is a crucial component in any mull, and a key spice in mince pies.

A body of research has associated its active compounds with an improvement in insulin sensitivity in people with impaired fasting blood sugar levels, and improved blood glucose levels in diabetics.

There have been toxicity concerns over consistent consumption or high doses of whole cinnamon or fat-soluble extracts, and there are commercially-available extracts that have the toxic elements removed.

The spice has also been linked to other health benefits, including protection against Alzheimer's disease and cardiovascular disease.


The merest hint of ginger has some people sniggering into their star-shaped cookies – for the root is reputed to be an aphrodisiac.

But it has also been used in Ayurvedic and Tibetan medicine for more than two millennia, for a range of conditions including arthritis and other joint problems. It is also reputed to help relieve all forms of nausea and vomiting, and relieve gas (note for after dinner, perhaps) – and to combat cold symptoms.


One of the three gifts borne by the wise men to baby Jesus, myrrh is intrinsically linked with the Christmas story.

Relatively few people know it’s a resin derived from the sap of the African myrrh tree, however – and even fewer its reputation as an astringent and anti-inflammatory. It is most commonly used in toothpastes, mouthwashes, and other body lotions.


What would a turkey dinner be without a generous dollop of cranberry jelly?

In recent years cranberries have ceased to be associated solely with Christmas – and with solid scientific backing, too. Best known is their ability to help with urinary tract infections, as the proanthocyanidins prevent bacteria from adhering to the lining of the urinary tract.

Other research has suggested that they may be helpful in an anti-ageing context, protecting brain cells from free radical damage, and reducing dental caries by combating Streptococcus mutans.


If your Christmas stocking has a selection pack sticking out the top of it, don’t kid yourself. Sugar-laden milk chocolate carries next to no nutritional value at all. But the evidence for dark chocolate’s health benefits – that is, more than 70 percent cocoa solids – is stacking up.

In particular, a high flavonol content has been linked to cardiovascular health, including improving the function of blood vessels and lowering blood pressure. It has also been researched for its anti-cancer potential, and improving the outward appearance of skin.


There’s no doubt that the wine will be free-flowing at many a Christmas table this year. Although alcohol should always be consumed in moderation (yes, even at Christmas, more’s the pity), let’s raise a glass to resveratrol.

The phenolic derivative found in particular in red wine, resveratrol was reported in Nature journal to boost survival rates of mice and prevent the negative effects of high-kilojoule diets - findings described by an independent expert as potentially “the breakthrough of the year”.

Other recent research has linked resveratrol and red wine to a reduced risk of colorectal cancer and to slowing the progression of Alzheimer's disease.

(Decision News Media)

- (Health24, updated April 2011)

Read more:

Cut those Christmas calories
Festive season slimmer's guide

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