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Seasonal Spices Pack Protective Antioxidants

by Ms. Susan M. Collins-Smith, MSU Extension Service

The antioxidants and nutrients in herbs and spices pack a healthy punch in many holiday dishes. (Photo by CanStock/profotokris)

RAYMOND, Miss. -- Food is a central part of holiday celebrations, and many traditional dishes can be loaded with fat, sugar and salt.

Qula Madkin, registered dietitian and instructor with the Mississippi State University Extension Service said that although some holiday foods should be occasional indulgences, many of these dishes also pack a healthy secret: herbs and spices.

“For me, the most exciting part of the holidays is enjoying good food with special people,” Madkin said. “While celebrations will be different this year, we can still enjoy our family food traditions without feeling guilty.”

Many of the foods enjoyed during the holiday season include herbs and spices, which have known health benefits. Just like fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices contain antioxidants, or properties that may protect cells from damage.

Madkin breaks down three spices commonly used during the holidays and their benefits.


  • Cinnamon is full of fiber and manganese. One tablespoon contains 4 grams of fiber. Manganese is a mineral that appears to help regulate blood sugar.

  • It has antifungal and antimicrobial properties.

  • It lends a sweet taste to foods without adding sugar.


  • Sage contains small amounts of zinc, magnesium, copper, and vitamins A, C and E.

  • One teaspoon contains 10% of the daily recommended intake of vitamin K.

  • It has antimicrobial properties and supports oral health.


  • Cloves are a good source of vitamins K and C.

  • They contain manganese, which supports bone health.

  • They have antibacterial properties.

Cloves are used to make ketchup and Worcestershire sauce. Ground cloves will complement foods the same way cinnamon or ginger do. Try it in applesauce, oatmeal, muffins, cookies, stewed pears, whole-grain pancakes and sweet breads.

Madkin said herbs and spices have been used for centuries for medicinal purposes, and science has proven their antioxidant properties. But more research is needed to identify what other specific health benefits herbs and spices may provide, such as possible prevention of certain chronic diseases.

“Some of that research is being done, but what we do understand completely right now is that spices can help flavor foods without adding fat, sugar or salt,” Madkin said. “Herbs and spices are a great way to enhance the flavor of foods while cutting calories.”

Many herbs and spices come in various forms, including dried, which is convenient and readily available. Madkin said processed herbs and spices have been proven to retain their antioxidant properties. However, keep in mind that some cooking methods, including grilling and frying, can reduce antioxidant properties. But microwaving, simmering or stewing can enhance these properties.

Janet Jolley, Extension agent in Marshall County, encourages people to experiment with different herbs and spices to punch up the flavor of foods.

“If you are unfamiliar with the flavor of an herb or spice, try mixing it with butter, cream cheese or margarine and letting it sit for one hour. Then taste the mixture on a cracker,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to mix spices for unique flavors, such as mint and dill, or oregano, basil and thyme.”

Jolley recommended trying allspice, anise, bay leaf, basil or cayenne pepper instead of salt when seasoning meats.

For poultry, try anise, bay leaf, cayenne pepper, chili powder, cumin, garlic, lemon grass, marjoram, oregano, paprika, sage or thyme.

Allspice, basil, celery seed, chili powder, dill weed, garlic powder, marjoram, paprika, parsley, rosemary or thyme compliment fish well.

Bay leaf, garlic, lemongrass, onion powder or saffron go well with seafood.

For soups and stews, try allspice, anise, bay leaf, basil, cayenne pepper, chile powder, cilantro, garlic powder, ginger, lemongrass, marjoram, onion powder, oregano, saffron or sage.

For vegetables, try anise, basil, celery seed, chili powder, cinnamon, curry powder, dill weed, garlic, garlic powder, ginger, marjoram, nutmeg, oregano, paprika, parsley, rosemary, sage or thyme.

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