Christmas spice and all things nice

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Blood glucose levels Blood sugar levels Blood sugar

Christmas-time is closely associated with feasting on special foods
and (dare we say it?) gross overindulgence that ends only after
bells have rung in the New Year. But many of the seasonal treats we
enjoy also have a healthy aspect. If eaten in the right quantities.
And not smothered in cream…


Stuck in an orange or used to flavour the fat of a roast ham, cloves have an enduring scent that, sniffed at any other time of the year, instantly prompts yuletide memories.

For some, though, the taste elicits less pleasant associations: of toothache. Cloves or clove oil applied to the affected tooth can help reduce pain, and may also reduce infection thanks to the antibacterial properties of the compound eugenol.


Cinnamon is a crucial component in any mull, and a key spice in mince pies.

A body of research has associated its active compounds with an improvement in insulin sensitivity in people with impaired fasting blood sugar levels, and improved blood glucose levels in diabetics.

There have been toxicity concerns over consistent consumption or high doses of whole cinnamon or fat-soluble extracts, and there are commercially-available extracts that have the toxic elements removed.

The spice has also been linked to other health benefits, including Alzheimer's and cardiovascular disease.


The merest hint of ginger in some part of Europe has people sniggering into their star-shaped cookies - for the root is reputed to be an aphrodisiac.

But it has also been used in Ayurvedic and Tibetan medicine for more than two millennia, for a range of conditions including arthritis and other joint problems. It is also reputed to help relieve all forms of nausea and vomiting, and relieve gas (note for after dinner, perhaps) - and to combat cold symptoms.


One of the three gifts borne by the wise men to baby Jesus, myrrh is intrinsically linked with the Christmas story.

Relatively few people know it's a resin derived from the sap of the African myrrh tree, however - and even fewer its reputation as an astringent and anti-inflammatory. It is most commonly used in toothpastes, mouthwashes, and other body lotions.


Ok, so most people these days are more likely to have a smooch under the mistletoe than ingest it. But the earliest recorded medicinal uses date back to druidic legend of pre-Roman times.

Today mistletoe is most commonly sold in tea form in Europe, said to help counter high blood pressure.

Crucially, there is a big difference between the species; it is the European Viscum album​ species that is believed to be beneficial. American Phoradendron​ has different properties and may be toxic. Thus, it's highly inadvisable to brew your own tea from decorative springs.

As a herbal supplement, mistletoe extract is reputed to be useful in boosting quality of life and fighting tumours in cancer sufferers. But the jury's still out: clinical trials to date have shown big inconsistency in results.


What would a turkey dinner be without a generous dollop of cranberry jelly?

In recent years cranberries have ceased to be associated solely with Christmas - and with solid scientific backing, too. Best known is their ability to help with urinary tract infections, as the proanthocyanidins prevent bacteria from adhering to the lining of the urinary tract.

Other research has suggested that they may be helpful in an ant-ageing context, protecting brain cells from free radical damage; reducing dental caries by combating Streptococcus mutans;

Preducing the risk of atherosclerosis thanks to the flavonoids; and decreasing peptic ulcers by inhibit the adhesion of H pylori​ to human gastric mucus (seen in vitro​).


If your Christmas stocking has a selection pack sticking out the top of it, don't kid yourself. Sugar-laden milk chocolate carried next to no nutritional value at all. But the evidence for dark chocolate's health benefits - that is, more than 70 per cent cocoa solids - is stacking up.

In particular, a high flavonol content has been linked to cardiovascular health, including improving the function of blood vessels and lowering blood pressure. It has also been researched for its anti-cancer potential, and improving the outward appearance of skin.


There's no doubt that the wine will be free-flowing at my Christmas table this year. Although alcohol should always be consumed in moderation (yes, even at Christmas, more's the pity), let's raise a glass to resveratrol.

The phenolic derivative found in particular in red wine, resveratrol was reported in Nature this year to boost survival rates of mice and prevent the negative effects of high-calorie diets - findings described by an independent expert as potentially "the breakthrough of the year".

Other recent research has linked resveratrol and red wine to a reduced risk of colorectal cancer and to slowing the progression of Alzheimer's disease.

Related topics Research

Related news

Show more

Follow us


View more