The Science of Christmas: Spice and everything nice

SPH Brightcove Video
Find out more about five Christmas spices, which are used in traditional Christmas items such as fruit cake and mulled wine. Each of them have health benefits that include boosting the immune system, alleviating nausea and relieving flatus.
Gingerbread men from Violet Oon. PHOTO: VIOLET OON

Cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, ginger and star anise are synonymous with Christmas - whether you find them in your meats and sweet treats, or mulled wine and eggnog, they are hard to miss.

What really keeps things spicy during the holidays, however, is the chemistry at work as you indulge in "just one more".

All spices have antimicrobial activities due to their phenolic compounds, and anti-cancer properties due to their terpene-derived compounds, according to Professor William Chen, director of the Food Science and Technology Programme at Nanyang Technological University.


Cloves are flower buds from the Syzygium aromaticum tree.

Like other spices, clove has anticarcinogenic, antioxidant, and anti-parasitic properties, and clove oil contains compounds that make it especially helpful for anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial action.


According to Prof Chen, the polyphenol compounds it produces make it anti-fungal, antibacterial, analgesic, sedative, anti-carcinogenic, and antioxidant.

"Similarly to the human body's immune system, the polyphenol molecules are produced to respond to pathogen attack, among other things," he said.

(Clockwise from top left) Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and star anise. PHOTOS: BLOOMBERG, THE NEW PAPER, KUA CHEE SIONG


Flavoursome nutmeg could also be the cure for turkey breath this Christmas.

Prof Chen said that "it contains a variety of phytochemicals, such as vitamins, carotenoids and flavonoids, which are effective antimicrobials to treat bad breath by inhibiting the growth of bacteria in the mouth".


The extra kick in ginger comes from gingerols - a molecule responsible for its hot and pungent sensation. Gingerols are the major active component of fresh ginger, said Prof Chen.

It turns out ginger and chilli are related. "The gingerol molecule in ginger is a relative of capsaicin, which is the component in chilli that makes it so pungent," added Prof Chen.


Keeping all your holiday food fresh is a hard task when there is so much of it to store, but who ever knew that cinnamon could help?

According to Prof Chen, cinnamon was traditionally used to cover up the smell of bad meat and to delay spoilage. "Its phenolic compounds mean that it can inhibit the growth of meat spoilage bacteria."

For more Christmas stories, click here.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.