It’s nearly impossible to think of the holiday season without thinking of holiday treats like cookies, cakes and other comforting, decadent delights. And when most of us think of holiday baking, we are immediately reminded of the vivid warming scents and aromas of holiday spices – cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger and so on.
The cooler months of the year inspire a deep longing for warm and cozy moments whether it’s curling up with a throw by the fire or baking with our loved ones in the kitchen. This holiday season, as we connect with these grounding, comforting rituals, here’s a gentle reminder to lean into those warming holiday spices to uplift our taste-buds and our health!
Here are some of my favorite spices to bake with this holiday season for both flavor and health-enhancing benefits.
Cinnamon and holiday treats are a match made in heaven. The warm, woodsy, sweet and spicy notes of cinnamon complement the richness of holiday baking beautifully.
Cinnamon is also known for several health-enhancing benefits like compounds that help balance blood sugar (1) and exert anti-inflammatory effects (2). Some studies have shown that just the scent of cinnamon may enhance our cognitive function (3).
The two main varieties of cinnamon are Cassia cinnamon, which is most routinely encountered on grocery store shelves and True or Ceylon cinnamon, which is harder to find but has a delicate, light and citrus flavor. If you use cinnamon often, I encourage you to procure True cinnamon. Cassia cinnamon has a compound called Coumarin, which at high enough doses may be a liver toxin, whereas True or Ceylon cinnamon has negligible amounts of Coumarin (4).
Cardamom is one of those luxurious, complex, floral spices that makes everything it touches taste like dessert, thereby reducing the need for added sugar!
Cardamom is known for its’ anti-nausea (5) and gut health-boosting effects (6). I love using it in all my holiday baking to add peppery, minty and floral notes and to help me get away with less refined sugar. It’s also an ant-bacterial spice (7) with anti-oxidants that may improve our cardiovascular health (8).
Cloves are one of the underrated and underutilized holiday spices. Their slightly bitter, peppery flavor is a really nice contrast to the sweetness of holiday baking plus the usual suspects when it comes to holiday spices, cinnamon and ginger. A little goes a long way so use a pinch or two for a nice depth of flavor.
Cloves contain a compound called eugenol which is an anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant (9) with potential cancer-fighting benefits (10). Cloves can also help balance blood sugar thanks to a compound called nigricin (11). Avoid large amounts of clove as found in teas and supplements and stick with culinary amounts as the compound eugenol can increase bleeding due to its blood thinning effects (9).
Ground ginger is sweet, peppery, spicy and warm and the perfect addition to almost every holiday treat even beyond the much adored gingerbread cookie.
Ginger contains gingerol and other beneficial compounds that can aid digestion, prevent bloating, help with PMS symptoms and curb unwanted inflammation (12). Ginger can also help our immune system function optimally boosting its anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties (13).
If you’ve enjoyed mulled wine or a spiced cider, you have likely encountered the smoky, woodsy flavor of star anise. This spice is a nice counterbalance to the sweet notes of the more common holiday spices like cinnamon but it also comes with unique health benefits.
Star anise contains shikimic acid which has anti-viral effects, especially when combined with the compound quercetin, found in apples (14). Apple star anise cinnamon muffins anyone?
Spices have been around for centuries and have been revered for both their health and flavor-enhancing magic. Here’s to adding some of that ancient magic to our delicious holiday baking with health benefits to boot!
Kanchan Koya is on a mission to demystify healing spices through her nutritious and delicious recipes. Upon becoming a mother, she created Spice Spice Baby, a platform and cookbook dedicated to shedding light on the health-boosting powers of spices and inspiring their use by home cooks looking to boost their health in simple and delicious ways. She has a doctorate in Molecular Biology from Harvard Medical School, training from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and believes that food can be our most powerful delicious medicine. She shares her spice knowledge and tons of amazing recipes and health tips on Instagram at @chiefspicemama.