Spices for Winter Wellness

You probably don’t think about it when you reach for a pinch of pepper or a teaspoon of cinnamon, but the spices in your cabinet were once rare and treasured for their medicinal properties.

Today, it’s mostly chefs and foodies who treasure spices as a secret ingredient or a delicious way to enhance a recipe without adding extra salt, sugar or fat. But ancient medicine may have had it right, as scientists are rediscovering the powers of some of our favorite spices. Adding an extra pinch or teaspoon of most spices provides a healthy dose of disease-fighting antioxidants, and a major boost to the immune system. 

Stars like oregano, rosemary and turmeric usually steal the spotlight because of their high antioxidant levels and cancer-fighting properties. Both oregano and turmeric have been shown in lab studies to kill certain cancer cells, and rosemary can help reduce the carcinogens that form on meat when it’s grilled.

But there are also a few “winter” spices that shouldn’t be overlooked.

While antioxidants may not prevent colds or flu, they will help to strengthen the immune system so you recover more quickly. Antioxidants are usually associated with foods like berries or leafy greens, but one spice in particular gives you a much bigger bang for the buck. One–half teaspoon of clove has as much antioxidant power as a half cup of blueberries, and researchers in Spain have ranked this spice as the best natural antioxidant. The spicy fragrance of clove complements winter fruits like apples, pears or pumpkin, and can be used along with cinnamon or nutmeg in oatmeal, muffins or sweet breads. 

Researchers in Spain have ranked clove as the best natural antioxidant.

Ginger has been used throughout history to treat everything from nausea and motion sickness to pain and inflammation, and it definitely has its place during cold and flu season. A cup of spicy ginger tea will ease symptoms of colds, respiratory infections and fever by relieving nasal congestion and stimulating circulation, which helps you feel warmer. As a bonus, its active compound, gingerol, has antimicrobial properties, to help nip any bacteria and viruses in the bud. Ginger is traditionally used in Asian cooking and marinades, but dried powdered ginger also adds a spicy zing to fruit salads, roasted carrots or sweet potatoes, as well as anything with pumpkin. 

Peppermint can be brewed as a tea, or taken as an enteric-coated capsule. Because it helps to relax muscles in the stomach, it can soothe an upset stomach or aid digestion. Peppermint’s active compound is menthol oil, which is also an effective decongestant and expectorant, and helpful for colds and cough.

Finally, cinnamon is rich with antioxidants, and its active compound cinnamaldehyde has antimicrobial properties that can fight bacteria in the mouth. Cinnamon has also been making the news recently for its blood sugar benefits. A teaspoon added to your morning oatmeal can help prevent a spike in after-breakfast blood sugar. But don’t limit it to breakfast — try a sprinkle on your yogurt, fruit salad or even in your smoothie.

The recipe below uses three of the four "winter" herbs listed here.


Spiced Candied Ginger

Recipe developed by Anne Danahy, MS, RD, LDN; adapted from American’s Test Kitchen

Great as a healthier sweet treat, or steep a few pieces in your tea.

Ingredients
2 ¼ cups granulated sugar (divided)
1 pound fresh ginger, peeled and sliced into ¼-inch thick slices
¼ teaspoon ground clove
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

Instructions

  1. Combine 2 cups water and 2 cups sugar in a saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally until sugar dissolves.
  2. Add ginger and simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Strain ginger and, if desired, reserve syrup for another use.
  3. Lay ginger in a single layer on a wire rack set over parchment paper or inside a baking pan to catch any drips. Allow ginger to dry completely, for at least 5 hours.
  4. Combine remaining ¼ cup sugar, cinnamon and clove in a large Ziploc bag and toss to combine. Add ginger to the bag and toss well to coat with sugar-spice mixture.
  5. Remove ginger to an airtight container and store up to two weeks. Will keep longer if stored in the refrigerator.
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Anne Danahy
Anne Danahy, MS, RDN, is a wellness dietitian and nutrition communications consultant who specializes in women's health and healthy aging. She blogs at Craving Something Healthy. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest.