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Christmas — and the entire holiday season — wouldn’t be the same without its signature scents. Think cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, ginger, peppermint, and pine.

For many of us, the scents of the season evoke holidays of years past. Those yummy smells are essential to the way we experience the traditional foods and beverages we enjoy during this magical time.

Why are certain spices so popular at this time of year? In medieval Europe, Christmas was an occasion to splurge on luxuries from distant lands such as the Middle East. Many classic holiday dishes containing cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves first became popular during that time.

These essential holiday spices don’t only add depth and flavor to foods, they are rich in natural plant compounds that have been studied for their health-promoting and disease-preventing properties.

Because spices are derived from plants, they share many of the same nutritional attributes of fruits and vegetables. Spices are very concentrated sources of anti-inflammatory health-protective compounds. For example, a mere ½ teaspoon of ground clove is said to contain more antioxidants than ½ cup of blueberries or cranberries. Using a heavy hand boosts their benefits.

Those benefits are greater than the sum of their individual effects when you also combine two or more.

Let’s look at a few of the most popular:

Anise: Popular for its licorice flavor, anise seed is thought to alleviate gas and relieve coughs. It can be added to cakes, cookies, and ice cream as well as breads and fruit salads.

Cardamom: The seeds are helpful for the digestive tract and taste like an airy, gentle ginger with a touch of pine. Cardamom enhances the flavor of pumpkin and other squash, sweet potatoes, and pastries. It’s best to purchase the seeds whole and grind them yourself in order to preserve the volatile oils.

Cinnamon: One of the most beloved flavors of the season, cinnamon comes from the brown bark of the cinnamon tree and can be sprinkled into coffee, cider, hot cocoa, hot cereal, whole grain pancakes, toast, poached pears, and baked apples. It may help regulate blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes and may also lower cholesterol. Cinnamon provides antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial effects.

Clove: Famous for its sweet nutty aroma, clove contains eugenol, which is linked with the prevention of toxicity from environmental pollutants, certain forms of cancer, and has antibacterial effects. Use clove wherever you add cinnamon or ginger. For example, stir ground clove into applesauce, stewed pears, or oatmeal. It can be added to muffins, cookies, whole grain pancakes, and sweet breads.

Ginger: Popular year round, it can be grated from its root or added as a powder form. Ginger helps quell morning sickness. In fresh form, it’s favored for treating colds, coughs, and congestion.

Nutmeg: This quintessential spice, the seed of the evergreen tree Myristica fragrans, has a woodsy, sweet flavor, and can be purchased whole and grated or purchased ground. It can be dusted on eggnog or added to baked goods. Nutmeg may kill some of the mouth bacteria that contribute to cavities. Children have been known to become sick from ingesting it straight from the jar, so ensure you put it where your child can’t reach it.

Finally, many recipes for baked goods call for more sugar than is really necessary. Try cutting the amount by one-quarter. Compensate by adding half as much again of the various “sweet” spices.

Tip: If your spices are more than two to three years old, toss ‘em and replace with more potent, new ones. They’re best stored in a cool, dark cupboard in airtight containers, not next to your stove.

Christine Palumbo is a nutritionist in Naperville, Ill., where she loves to combine bay leaf, lemon or orange wedges, cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, and water in a pan on the stove to naturally infuse the air with the scent of the holidays. Find her at Christine Palumbo Nutrition on Facebook, @PalumboRD on Twitter or ChristinePalumbo.com.

Updated 3:19 pm, December 11, 2017
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