Ah, the holiday season — a “thyme” for friends, family, food, feasts and of course, temptation.
No matter what holiday is being celebrated, many people observe food-centric traditions that help distinguish their holiday experiences. And while holiday foods are familiar and nostalgic, they do not always facilitate healthy dietary choices. Such dishes often tend to be heavy, fatty, sugary and over-salted. So, for many of us, the holidays can also inadvertently signify indulgence and excess.
Fortunately, it is possible to create lighter versions of comfort foods without sacrificing flavor or tradition. One way to mitigate the temptation of heavier fare is by developing flavors in dishes with herbs and spices. In fact, many traditional holiday dishes already include culinary spices and herbs such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, anise, allspice, cardamom, sage and garlic. These sublime ingredients stimulate appetite, satisfy taste and add layers of depth to dishes. Cooking with herbs and spices also reduces the need for excess salt, sugar and fat — ingredients typically used to enhance flavor. In addition to making foods taste good, herbs and spices have long been used for their health-promoting properties, because of the vast array of phytonutrients they contain.
Phytonutrients, which are naturally occurring plant chemicals, may provide significant health benefits for humans when consumed. They are known to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties — helping to protect cells from unstable molecules in the body known as free radicals and inflammation. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, consuming phytonutrients can be an effective strategy for decreasing the risks of cancer and heart disease. Although scientists do not completely understand the specific mechanisms of how phytonutrients work, research indicates that people should consume plant-based foods, such as spices and herbs, to reap their potential health benefits.
The following holiday spices and herbs are loaded with phytonutrients and show great promise for therapeutic use in health promotion and disease prevention and management:
Probably the most recognizable of the holiday spices, cinnamon is harvested from the bark of evergreen trees within the genus Cinnamomum. Cinnamon contains an antioxidant component, and has long been studied for its anti-inflammatory, anticancer and antidiabetic effects. Current research suggests that cinnamon may play a role in lowering fasting blood glucose levels. Additionally, cinnamon may have a beneficial effect on blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Cinnamon is incredibly versatile and can be featured in stews and soups, baked fruits, whole grain salads with barley, couscous, or quinoa, breakfast entrees or mixed into coffee, milk or yogurt.
Here’s another spice associated with the holidays. Nutmeg, whether ground or whole, possesses antioxidant and antimicrobial qualities, and includes the phytonutrients beta-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin. Nutmeg can be utilized in a variety of dishes, including winter squash, potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, fresh and baked fruits, drinks and desserts. Using nutmeg in desserts (as with cinnamon) may allow you to reduce the amount of sugar needed in a recipe due to the natural sweetness it provides.
Bread anyone? Ginger, with its roots in Asian and Indian herbal medicine, has been used to treat gastric upset and aid in digestion for thousands of years. A known anti-inflammatory, ginger contains hundreds of plant compounds that may contribute to its health-promoting properties. Ginger makes an excellent, antioxidant-packed addition to those holiday sweet potato sides. Ground or fresh, ginger adds subtle spiciness to sauteed vegetables, salad dressings, marinades and desserts.
Ground clove pairs well with cinnamon or ginger and can be incorporated in applesauce, stewed or baked pears, oatmeal or whole-grain pancakes and breads. Clove is an antioxidant powerhouse, considering that ½ teaspoon of ground clove contains more antioxidants than ½ cup of fresh blueberries.
A member of the mint family, sage is used in herbal medicine to promote circulation and treat digestive problems. Sage exhibits antioxidant and antimicrobial qualities, and may have positive, cognitive benefits. Sage is strongly aromatic and slightly bitter and makes a great addition to pastas, stuffings, chicken, veal, pork and sausage. It also combines well with cured meats.
The holidays do not have to be an exercise in excess. Smart ingredients and sensible portion sizes can elevate your culinary holiday experience and keep “thyme-honored” traditions delicious and nutritious. At the very least, a sprinkling of spices and herbs can impart flavor to foods without additional fat, sugar or sodium. So keep calm and “curry” on — and remember, you “herb” it here first.