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Holiday spice and everything nice

December 23, 2012
By GLYNIS VALENTI - Staff Writer ( , Times Leader

"It's the most wonderful time of the year," because of the presents? No. Because of the music? No. Take a deep breath - aahhhh - the smell of fresh holiday cookies hot out of the oven. That's the stuff.

From Thanksgiving until Dec. 31 is a whirlwind of cookie tins, cookie swaps, cookie cutters and the smell of spices and sugar in every kitchen and office break room. While keeping up this season's pace of tasty treats and family recipes can lead to caloric overload and be the premise for at least one New Year's resolution, there are ways to keep the tastes of Christmas close and benefit health-wise, too.

Two favorite seasonal flavors, ginger and peppermint, have been used in various forms since ancient times and address similar maladies when taken as such. It's a matter of preference, hot or cool.

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Most people recognize the cool, “curiously strong” flavor of peppermint in mints and candy. In 1877, Colgate was the first toothpaste to add peppermint to its product as a breath freshener.

The pungent rhizome of the ginger plant is what gives gingerbread its spicy flavor. It originated in southeast Asia and was used by ancient Chinese, Indian and even Middle Eastern cultures. When the food-loving Romans found out about it 2000 years ago, they began importing it from China.

Being a subtropical plant, ginger was still imported during the Middle Ages when it found its way throughout the rest of Europe. As Spain explored and conquered the New World, it introduced ginger to warm places like the West Indies, Mexico and South America, and Europe had a new source for the spice. India, China and Indonesia continue to be the world's top producers today.

The flesh of the root can be yellow, white or red, with an outer skin that is thick or very thin, depending on the maturity of the plant at harvest. Fresh ginger has far better nutritional value than the powdered version, but usually the powdered version is used in sweet treats like cookies, cakes, ginger ale and ginger beer. However, the fresh root is readily available at local grocery stores, and is easy to use for health purposes.

Fresh ginger's active compounds, gingerols and a protease, give ginger potent medicinal properties that can work on everything from indigestion to cancer. First, ginger has long been used as a treatment for intestinal gas, as a digestive aid and a folk remedy for colic. Grating even a small amount into a soup or salad or steeping as little as one ounce in hot water for tea can relieve after dinner discomfort. Its properties also relax the intestinal tract making digestion easier.

It is an ancient remedy proven through modern research studies to be safe and effective in treatment of nausea and vomiting due to motion sickness and pregnancy. One study compared ginger's effectiveness to the commercial drug Dramamine's, and ginger was found to alleviate more of the symptoms in test patients. A study published in the medical journal Obstetrics and Gynecology confirmed that even small doses of ginger are not only effective but don't carry the potential dangerous side effects of anti-vomiting drugs.

Gingerols, powerful anti-inflammatory compounds, are credited for ginger's ability to reduce pain and inflammation in both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis patients. Again, small doses on a regular basis helped study patients find relief.

Specifically, 6-gingerol seems to be a star in addressing inflammation and free radicals. It has also been identified in cancer research as significant. Lab experiments have shown particularly promising results in the inhibition of colorectal cancer cells and destruction of ovarian cancer cells. For women who are at high risk of developing ovarian cancer, the regular addition of some form of fresh ginger to the diet may be worthwhile.

Finally, there may be something to this long-time folk remedy for colds, flu and coughing. Researchers have found that the internal heat created by ginger can cause the body to sweat, releasing toxins as well as an antibacterial agent that blocks harmful germs from getting to the skin. Sipping hot ginger tea with citrus and honey will give the body a time-honored, nutritional, anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial boost from nature.

As far as side effects, an allergy to ginger usually results in a rash. Some people experience nausea, bloating, heartburn or intestinal gas, but this usually happens with ginger in powdered form. People with gallbladder issues, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers or a history of stomach problems should be cautious about ingesting regular doses of fresh ginger. Consult a doctor before beginning any new health regimen, especially when taking prescription drugs.

Some people favor icy and refreshing over spicy heat. Another Christmas favorite, peppermint, is for them. Out of the approximate 25 species of mint, true peppermint (Menthe piperita) is a hybrid of two other mints, water mint and spearmint. Its roots, so to speak, go back to ancient cultures where there is evidence of mint in Egyptian tombs from 1000 B.C.

Greek mythology explains the origin of mint with a love triangle. Hades, god of the Underworld, was showing Minthe, a nymph, some extra attention. Persephone, Hades' wife, put an end to that by turning Minthe into a plant on which people would always be walking. Angered and saddened, Hades one-upped his wife by making the plant fragrant peppermint so that when people did walk or brush against the plant, its scent would be released from the oils in its leaves, and people would always remember Minthe's beauty and charm.

The herb has traditionally represented hospitality. The Romans often grew mint on walkways, so that guests would have the fresh scent greeting them. Greeks rubbed mint leaves on dining tables for the same reason. Offering guests mint tea is a way of welcoming friends to the home in the Middle East. Unlike warm-weather ginger, mint is grown throughout the world in all different climates.

While the leaves are edible and freshen salads, drinks and breath, it is really the oil in the leaves where the active ingredients are concentrated, and that is usually what is harvested. The first recognized commercial mint cultivation began in England in 1750 when a new hybrid was developed.

In the United States, the first settlers brought mint with them, and the Native Americans had already been using it for centuries. In 1790, a commercial mint operation began in Massachusetts. In 1846, the Americans came up with a distilling process to extract the oils which much improved the quality of the product over the centuries-old boiling process. The U.S. now supplies 75 percent of the world's peppermint oil, most of it grown in the Pacific Northwest.

As different as ginger and peppermint are, their effects on the body are similar. Mint, too, is a traditional remedy for intestinal gas, bloating, IBS and colonic spasms. The oil contains a mild muscle relaxer, and menthol seems to be a component in this treatment, also.

In animal studies, a phytonutrient called Perillyl alcohol has shown much promise in combating cancer cells. Research indicates that this element can stop the growth of pancreatic, liver and breast tumors and protect the colon, skin and lungs from the formation of cancer cells. No human tests have been completed in this research as of yet.

Peppermint contains rosmarinic acid, an anti-oxidant that fights free radicals and also blocks the formation of inflammatory substances. This acid enhances the production of prostacyclins, substances that keep airways open enabling breathing. This is significant for asthma sufferers.

In addition to anti-microbial properties that block and fight bacteria and fungus, peppermint is a good source for several nutrients: manganese, Vitamin C, Vitamin A (carotenoids that fight cancer, in this case colon tumor cells), folate, iron, magnesium, Vitamin B2 and omega-3 acids.

As usual, fresh mint is always better than dried. When using in recipes, peppermint oil and peppermint extract are two different ingredients. Peppermint oil is much more concentrated and is the product of distillation. Peppermint extract is a blend of peppermint oil and, generally, alcohol that is less expensive and not as strong.

Peppermint is also considered "safe" in normal quantities, even on a regular basis. Women who are pregnant or nursing and those taking medications should check with a doctor if planning on taking it for medicinal reasons. Though rare, reactions to peppermint could include heartburn, headaches, flushing or mouth sores.

While this information is not considered license to dive into a gingerbread house or develop a steady diet of candy canes and peppermint patties, sipping either of these herbs in tea or other foods on a regular basis could provide benefits to the body that will last throughout the year.



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