Spice companies began marketing the blend of spices known as pumpkin pie spice in the 1930s, and it was soon a hit with harried housewives everywhere, used primarily in the making of the eponymous pastry. But something happened in the 1990s that would forever change how the world sees and consumes pumpkin pie spice. A chance meeting in a corner coffee shop between that flavor and an espresso drink went on to inspire everything from pumpkin spice candles to beer to breakfast cereal. That classic combo, so evocative of the advent of chilly weather and falling leaves, is made up of antioxidant powerhouses: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves. Below we will take a look at each of the components of pumpkin pie spice from the perspective of modern medical science, and give you a recipe for a healthy no-bake pumpkin pie.
“He who controls the spice controls the universe.”
~ Frank Herbert (Dune)
In addition to being a tasty addition to savory and sweet dishes, cinnamon has been used to treat various ailments for thousands of years, and modern researchers are exploring its health potential with positive results. Cinnamon has shown promise in the fight against cancer, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and dementia, and it exhibits potent antiinflammatory, antimicrobial, and antioxidant activity as well.
Cinnamon oil can be used as a natural insect repellent.
Another potent antioxidant, ginger has a long history of use in traditional medicines to treat such maladies as nausea and diarrhea, joint pain, fungal infections, and headaches, to name a few. Modern researchers are finding ginger has anti-oxidative and antiinflammatory effects, tonic effects on the kidneys, protects against breast cancer-related bone loss, and may be useful in the fight against Parkinson’s disease. Ginger also shows promise against heart disease and acetaminophen-induced liver damage.
Nutmeg has been used in folk medicine since at least the Middle Ages, when it was employed to treat digestive disorders, inflammation, and sexual dysfunction. While research into the health benefits of this spice has not been as extensive as with some of the others in the pumpkin pie spice mix, science has uncovered some interesting properties and possibilities for future research. Nutmeg’s antibacterial properties help to fight cavities, and various chemical constituents of the spice have been studied for their antianxiety, antibacterial, and antiinflammatory properties, and their positive effects on sexual dysfunction, peptic ulcers, and diabetes.
In 1667 the Dutch bartered Manhattan to the British in exchange for control of the nutmeg trade.
Cloves have been used in Indian and Chinese traditional medicine to treat halitosis, tooth decay, and sexual dysfunction, and as a food preservative, for thousands of years, and these aromatic dried flower buds continue to prove their worth as they move into the 21st century. In addition to their antioxidant, antibacterial, antimicrobial, and antifungal properties, eugenol (an essential oil derived from cloves) has such powerful analgesic effects that it is widely used in dentistry to this day, and eugenin, another compound derived from cloves, has strong antiviral properties. Clove extract has also been found to preserve bone density in people suffering from osteoporosis.
Allspice has been used in traditional medicine to relieve everything from digestive problems to menstrual cramps. It is rich in
antioxidant aromatic oils including eugenol (see cloves), and it has shown efficacy against hypertension, and menopausal symptoms.
Allspice was so named by the ship’s doctor on Christopher Columbus’
second voyage to the Americas.
“And who gave you that jolly red nose?
Sinamont and ginger, nutmegs and cloves,
And that gave me my jolly red nose!”
~ From Ravencroft’s Deuteromela (1609)
With the exception of nutmeg, all of the components of pumpkin spice show some anticancer activity. A brief rundown of where the science stands today is below.
Although cinnamon has yet to find its way into clinical studies, it has shown a great deal of promise in our fight against various forms of cancer in animal and cellular models.
A 2010 study found that cinnamon extract inhibited endothelial cell proliferation, migration, and tube formation in vitro, and tumor-induced blood vessel formation in chicken embryos. In 2009, researchers found that cinnamon extract modulates angiogenesis and the effector function of CD8+ T cells in melanoma in vitro and in vivo, and another study in 2010 showed that C. cassia extract has potent antitumor effects in vitro, and in a mouse melanoma model. Aqueous C. cassia extract has been shown to alter the growth kinetics of cervical cancer cells, making it a promising possible addition to Western medicine’s cancer prevention toolkit.
See our previous article on cinnamon here.
Unlike the other components of pumpkin pie spice, ginger has been tested in the clinic to determine its preventive efficacy against colorectal cancer, and against chemotherapy-induced nausea. In 2015, researchers tested the chemopreventive efficacy of ginger root extract in a small group of otherwise healthy individuals at increased risk for colorectal cancer, with positive results, echoing a larger phase 2 study in 2011 that found that ginger supplementation reduced eicosanoid levels in the colon mucosa of healthy adult volunteers. A pilot study published in 2014 showed similar results.
There have been a number of preclinical studies using ginger and its components, including a 2005 study that showed that ginger significantly reduced the number of tumors and incidence of cancer in rats treated with the carcinogen 1,2-dimethylhydrazine, and two studies in 2009 found that zerumbone, a sesquiterpene found in ginger, inhibits lung and colon cancer in mice.
There have been numerous in vitro studies into ginger’s efficacy against various cancer cell lines, many with promising results.
See our earlier article on ginger here.
Cloves and Allspice
Cloves and allspice both contain eugenol, which, in addition to its analgesic properties, has been shown to inhibit the growth of melanoma cells in vitro, and to protect against melanoma in animal models. Eugenol has also shown promise against prostate cancer. In 2013, researchers tested the efficacy of the compound against prostate cancer in mice and found that it delayed tumor growth with no measurable toxicity. Another study, also in 2013, demonstrated the anti-proliferative and cytotoxic activities of allspice extract against human prostate cancer cells in vitro and in LNCaP tumor-bearing mice. Clove extract has been shown to be more cytotoxic toward cancer cells and less toxic to normal cells than the chemotherapy drug gemcitabine. An aqueous infusion derived from cloves was found effective against lung cancer in mice. In 2015, researchers found an aqueous extract of allspice to be effective against human breast cancer cells in vitro and in mice.
Precautions and Interactions
“Moderation in all things”
The different varieties of cinnamon contain varying amounts of coumarin, which is hepatotoxic in large doses. The levels of coumarin found in Chinese cinnamon (C. cassia) are 250 times higher than those found in the Ceylon variety (C. verum or C. zeylanicum): 1% in C. cassia vs. 0.004% in Ceylon. Consuming just 1-2 teaspoons of C. cassia could exceed the recommended upper limit. Although Chinese cinnamon is the most commonly sold variety, Ceylon cinnamon is widely available in health food stores and online. Unlike C. cassia, Ceylon cinnamon is safe to use as a supplement.
Ginger is considered generally safe when taken by mouth, and possibly safe when applied topically, as it can cause mild skin irritation.
Nutmeg is safe when used in culinary quantities, but it is toxic in high doses.
Like cinnamon and nutmeg, clove is safe when used in culinary quantities but it is contraindicated for use in large quantities.
Allspice is safe to use in cooking and baking, but it is not recommended in the quantities that would be required for use as a supplement, as research into the side effects of this spice is still scarce.