In praise of festive spices

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Don’t deny yourself this year – our seasonal treats often come with a whole host of health benefits, says nutritional therapist Karen Geary

It’s the time of year for some food indulgence. I’m all about people having a healthy relationship with food, even sweet foods in moderation from time to time – and celebrating with loved ones is the perfect occasion. Forget your self-imposed rules; nothing should be off the table unless someone has a serious underlying condition.

Unsung heroes
Herbs and spices are one of the most underrated food groups; they are the unsung heroes in the nutrition world, jam-packed with high amounts of antioxidants per gram of weight and are often anti-microbial in nature. Before modern science was introduced, herbs and spices were used frequently for medicinal purposes.
Here is the lowdown on my favourite spices frequently used at this time of year:

Ginger
(Zingiber officinale)
Ginger contains more than 400 natural compounds; one of the critical ones is something called gingerol. When people ask me for my favourite superfood, ginger is always near the top of the list (after liver, since you ask), and I could probably write a whole feature just on ginger’s benefits. It belongs to the Zingiberaceae family and is closely related to turmeric, cardamom and galangal. With my clients, I use it primarily for digestive issues, including nausea, regular bowel movements, bloating and gas. It’s also a key component of many natural arthritis supplements due to its anti-inflammatory benefits. I encourage clients to use it liberally in cooking for all-round immune support.
Ginger tea is a perfect drink if you plan to over-indulge this month or you have a seasonal gastric upset. Handily, ginger is used liberally in desserts this time of year. As well as my recipe opposite, there is a recipe for ginger switchel on my website, a delicious alcohol-free drink.

Cinnamon
(Cinnamomum verum)
One of cinnamon’s key compounds is cinnamaldehyde, known for its medicinal properties.
I use cinnamon daily; a teaspoon on my Greek yogurt or in my stewed, sugar-free apple, not only because I like the taste of it but for its blood sugar balancing properties. There have been studies on diabetes patients showing a reduction in blood glucose between ten and 19 per cent – powerful stuff. And cinnamon is easily found at this time of year, as it is hugely popular at in festive baking.

Saffron
This is a very expensive spice, but you only need a very small amount. It is packed full of antioxidants. Two compounds I would pick out are safranal and kaempferol, both backed up by research showing promise for anxiety and depression. While I use the stamens for cooking, saffron can be bought in supplement form.

Star Anise
Studies on star anise are limited but it has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years for its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties. One compound, shikimic acid, is having a moment for potential pharmacological use due to its anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties.

Cloves
My mum used to give me cloves to chew on when I had toothache as a kid! The compound eugenol is a natural anesthetic as well as being antiseptic.

Nutmeg
Though poorly researched, mostly in animal studies, nutmeg is known for its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties. Studies in mice indicate that it may enhance sex drive and performance, but sadly I didn’t find any studies on humans to support it!

  • Gingerbread Oatmeal Bars
  • Ingredients
  • NB This is double the quantity than in my e-book, because we couldn’t stop eating the first batch!
  • ½ cup maple syrup
  • 3 tbs molasses (high in iron!)
  • 1 cup of almond or peanut butter (about one small 170g jar)
  • 2 cups of oats
  • 2/3 cup pumpkin seeds
  • 2/3 cup chopped walnuts
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • ½ tsp nutmeg
  • ½ tsp ground cloves
  • ½ tsp salt
  • One egg (if not catering for vegans).
  • Method
  • Oven on at 165º and line a small baking pan. I used a 20cm square pan.
  • Mix the nut butter and maple syrup together (plus the egg if using) until thoroughly combined.
  • Add the rest of the ingredients, stir to mix and ensure everything is well combined. It should be quite stiff.
  • Pour into the prepared pan and then use wet fingers to smooth it down with your hands.
  • Bake for 20 to 30 minutes.
  • Let it cool for 20 minutes and then chill in the fridge until completely cold (another hour). If you are tempted to cut it before, it just breaks up, so wait!
  • Cut into squares or bars. Technically this makes 16, but it’s up to you how big you want them…

Merry Christmas and thank you so much for your support this year.
Please enjoy my recipe and if you like it, download my free e-book on my website. It contains 25 festive treats that are simple, all vegan and almost all gluten free.

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