Pumpkin spice is more than just a flavor

It’s still the time of year for “pumpkin spice” lattes and treats. Indeed, they are just about everywhere you turn. But when you look at the horrific list of fake ingredients in so-called pumpkin-spice coffee concoctions from big commercial chains, you’ll see it’s far healthier to sprinkle the single spices that make up that pumpkin spice flavor directly into your home-brewed coffee for a seasonal treat instead.

There are five spices that typically make up a pumpkin spice blend: allspice, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg. But these spices actually have nothing to do with pumpkins, botanically. They’re simply used to give some “spice” to the otherwise bland (but healthy) taste of pumpkins.

Of course, these five popular spices have many other roles as well. I even like to add them to one of my favorite holiday drinks—George Washington’s Original Eggnog (see the sidebar on page 5 for the recipe).

But these holiday spices don’t just taste good, they each have a storied culture and history as botanical remedies. Let’s take a closer look…

The five spices behind that pumpkin-spice flavor

1.) Allspice is widely used in cooking throughout the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America. You make it by grinding dried, unripe berries from the native pimento tree.

Like other holiday spices, allspice contains compounds that reduce inflammation and help stimulate digestion. It’s also loaded with important minerals like potassium, manganese, iron, copper, selenium, and magnesium.

2.) Cinnamon blocks inflammation-promoting compounds in the body, including unhealthy fat metabolites and toxic biochemicals.

Studies show that the best-known variety, called Cassia cinnamon, thins the blood, helps prevent blood clots, and controls blood sugar. However, if you take a blood-thinner drug, you should use the other variety of cinnamon called Ceylon. It will give you the anti-inflammatory benefits without potential drug interaction side effects.

3.) Cloves improve digestion by stimulating the secretion of digestive enzymes. They also help reduce flatulence, gastric irritability, dyspepsia, and nausea. Some research suggests they even help control blood sugar levels.

You can roast cloves and eat them with honey. Clove oil is also great for toothaches and removing skin growths.

4.) Ginger is part of the same botanical family as the powerhouse remedy turmeric. For 3,000 years, the Chinese have used ginger to treat stomach upset, diarrhea, nausea, and pain. (No wonder ginger is so prominent in Asian cooking!)

In the West, we have our own ginger remedies. When you were a child, did your mother or grandmother ever give you a glass of ginger ale to settle your upset stomach? That might not have been a bad idea back in the day, when it actually contained real ginger. But nowadays, most options on the market contain artificial ginger flavoring.

You can make your own ginger ale or ginger tea by adding a few slices of fresh ginger root to sparkling or hot water. In fact, I recommend always keeping a fresh, whole tuber of ginger on hand in your refrigerator. A slice or two is a great way to “spice up” everything from stir fries to baked goods.

5.) Nutmeg, like many of the other spices on this list, helps reduce inflammation. In fact, research shows nutmeg oil slows the production of COX-2, which is the same way ibuprofen and some other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs work.

Nutmeg tea also eases digestive discomfort. But beware, some research suggest that nutmeg at high doses can cause hallucinations. Also, pregnant or nursing women and infants shouldn’t take it.

So go ahead and use these spices liberally in your baking and cooking this holiday season. They’ll add flavor to your foods and offer some impressive medicinal benefits as well.

SIDEBAR: George Washington’s Original Eggnog

America’s first president was fond of eggnog at Christmastime. I recently came across George Washington’s original recipe for the libation in The Old Farmers’ Almanac—written down for posterity by the man himself sometime between 1789 and his death  just before Christmas in 1799.1

The recipe is not only festive, but it’s also a small glimpse into Washington’s writing and thinking. Here it is, in his own words:

“One quart cream, one quart milk, one dozen tablespoons sugar, one pint brandy, 1/2 pint rye whiskey, 1/2 pint Jamaica rum, 1/4 pint sherry—mix liquor first, then separate yolks and whites of 12 eggs, add sugar to beaten yolks, mix well. Add milk and cream, slowly beating. Beat whites of eggs until stiff and fold slowly into mixture. Let set in cool place for several days. Taste frequently.”

Of course, Washington used organic cane sugar, and you can certainly ease up on that ingredient to taste. I also like to sprinkle the five holiday spices into the mix. They’re a no-calorie way to add even more flavor to this seasonal libation.

Fair warning: You’ll certainly be feeling the Christmas “spirit” with this recipe! But it makes sense that Washington was perhaps a bit heavy-handed with the booze. Among his other agrarian pursuits, Washington distilled, bottled, and sold his own liquor at Mount Vernon, Virginia—which was home for 45 years. Today, Mount Vernon sells rye whiskey distilled on the estate using the president’s own recipe.