Mulled or spiced wine is a traditional Christmas treat dating back centuries and with many variations across Europe. In fact one mediaeval English recipe circa1390, sounds very familiar, including ground cinnamon, ginger, galangal, cloves, pepper, nutmeg, marjoram, and cardamom. These spices were mixed with red wine and sweetened with sugar (‘for the Lords’) or honey (‘for the people’). For those who don’t get on with red wine, traditional variations include spiced hot cider or ale. The addition of fresh fruit (sliced apple, pear, orange) or dried fruit (raisins, prunes etc) and fruit juice (apple, orange or grape juice) make the drink into a sweeter, less alcoholic hot punch.
In this article I am going to look at the health benefits of several of the key ingredients.
Read time 9 minutes (1800 words )
Red wine – health benefits
Red wine, consumed with meals, appears to contribute to the healthy eating pattern associated with the Mediterranean diet. Famously, the polyphenols in red wine, such as resveratrol, have been shown to play a key role in the prevention of cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions, including cancer, and appear to protect the brain against Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease (See a detailed 2016 paper here). As one research paper stated Polyphenols are medicine: Is it time to prescribe red wine for our patients? (2009),
Recently red-wine polyphenols, along with some in dark chocolate, have been shown to have remarkable anti-aging effects (International Business Times, Nov 8th). Specifically, these analogues of resveratrol were found to waken senescent cells (old cells which have stopped dividing) and get them working like young again. Within hours of being treated with resveretrols these cells began dividing again and had longer telomeres (chromosome caps). Eva Latorre, who carried out the experiments said:
“When I saw some of the cells in the culture dish rejuvenating I couldn’t believe it. These old cells were looking like young cells. It was like magic, I repeated the experiments several times and in each case the cells rejuvenated. I am very excited by the implications and potential for this research.”
Apart from the polyphenols, the alcohol in red wine may be beneficial in and of itself. A recent study found that people who drink 3 to 4 times per week are less likely to develop diabetes than those who are teetotal. Similar patterns of a protective effect with moderate alcohol consumption are seen for heart disease.
So what effect does heating have on the health benefits of red wine? As you can imagine there are not many studies in this area, however, I did find one which showed the vasodilator activity remained intact after heating!
Anti-cancer properties of mulling spices
Cinnamon, clove, ginger, black pepper and nutmeg have many related health properties, primarily from the high levels of polyphenols they contain which give them marked antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Fortunately these are largely unaffected by cooking. The anti-cancer properties of these spices has been investigated extensively in cell lines and animal studies, indicating significant potential for cancer prevention. The table below identifies multiple lines of anti-cancer action. See how often the mulling spices ginger, cinnamon and black pepper crop up.
[Anti-oncogenic perspectives of spices/herbs: A comprehensive review
Masood Sadiq Butt et al, 2013 paper (full text)]
Cinnamon (cassia bark) is one of my favourite flavourings and can be used in many dishes apart from mulled wine such as real mince meat pies (recipe here), and of course a host of savoury and sweet dishes. Medicinally, this spice has some distinct anti-diabetic properties, including limiting blood sugar spikes (postprandial glucose excursions) and improving insulin sensitivity and even protecting working memory in prediabetes. Some studies suggest that cinnamon acts as an insulin mimetic, increasing the effect of insulin and stimulating better glucose metabolism
It also has significant anti-obesity properties, directing fat cells to turn excess calories into heat (thermogenesis) rather than storing them. The author of a recent study from University of Michigan, Jun Wu, after investigating the fat burning potential of cinnamon said:
“Cinnamon has been part of our diets for thousands of years, and people generally enjoy it. So if it can help protect against obesity, too, it may offer an approach to metabolic health that is easier for patients to adhere to.”
Cinnamon also has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and cancer preventative effects. In the intestines it improves digestive function, scavenges free radicals and reduces lipid oxidation and has recently been shown to improve the mucosal barrier function by enhancing tight-junctions proteins, thereby reducing ‘leaky gut’. Furthermore, in one comprehensive study of the prebiotic effects of spices cinnamon enhanced the growth of the beneficial species Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus, whilst inhibiting activity against some Ruminococcus species, Clostridium difficile and some other pathogenic species, indicating beneficial effects on the microbiome.
Furthermore, the traditional use of cinnamon as a cancer treatment in the Far East has received some support as it has been shown to effectively inhibit the proliferation of leukaemia stem cells and vascular smooth muscle cells in the test tube, and preventative effects in lung cancer.
Safety: Cinnamon can be used liberally in food quantities and has a good safety profile. Its blood sugar lowering properties could potentially lead to hypoglycaemia for diabetics who should monitor this carefully.
Cloves and clove oil have been used since Roman times to numb tooth ache. Recent experiments have confirmed the anti-inflammatory and pain killing properties. Cloves have antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties. It has been used in traditional medicine to kill intestinal parasites in conditions such as schistosomiasis. Like cinnamon it has been shown to have anti-obesity properties, but via inhibition of fat cell production, and by reduction in fat synthesis in the liver.
As an anti-diabetic cloves have been shown to “perform comparably to insulin by significantly reducing blood glucose levels in animal models”, and appears to improve muscle glycogenesis and mitochondrial function.
In the GI tract cloves may be effective at reducing ulcers, whilst reducing lipid oxidation and improving gut function.
Cloves have anti-cancer properties, with studies showing beneficial effects in colorectal, eosophagael and breast cancer cell lines.
Safety: Even at high doses (1g /kg body weight per day) cloves have not shown any toxicological effects.
Nutmeg and Mace
Nutmeg and mace are both parts of the fruit of Myristica frangrans, and share similar culinary uses although nutmeg has more significant medicinal properties, with mace having a much lower antioxidant activity.
Nutmeg have many beneficial effects on the gut, including antioxidant, antidiarrheal and antimicrobial. It has shown to be effective against pathogenic strains of Escherichia coli, but not against non-pathogenic strains, which is handy! It has also been shown to have good anti-malarial and anti-tuberculosis activity.
Central nervous system effects of nutmeg have been studied extensively, with some anti-convulsant properties identified. Traditionally nutmeg has been used to treat sexual dysfunction. A 2005 study found extracts to possess “aphrodisiac activity, increasing both libido and potency, which might be attributed to its nervous stimulating property.”
A component of mace, macelignan, has shown anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, to antidiabetic, hepato- and neuro-protective effects. Studies have shown macelignan can prevent the development of allergen-induced asthma in experimental animal models. It also has anti-aging effects in the skin.
Safety: Nutmeg is poisonous in large doses, inducing hallucinations, tachycardia and anticholinergic effects. The presence of psychoactive compounds has lead to its use as a psychedelic drug which is where the majority of poisoning cases arise. Its potential toxicity shows up in other ways, for example there are studies demonstrating both liver protective and liver toxic effects, meaning some caution should be exercised before taking it as a supplement, at normal culinary quantities, however, it is unlikely to cause any problems.
Ginger root, I don’t need to tell you, is a wonderful warming spice and can be added to mulled wine as dried powder, grated fresh root, or as a splash of ginger wine. Ginger has long been used to settle tummies, reduce indigestion and nausea. Taken before a meal it can improve appetite and aid digestion by reducing fullness, belching and heart burn. As a digestive, taken before a meal, it also increases the absorption of the minerals iron, zinc and calcium, whilst increasing the digestion of fats through increased bile secretions. At the same time, ginger enhances energy metabolism and reduces fat accumulation.
Ginger exhibits a wide range of anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory action which may explain many of its protective effects such as against cataracts and fatty liver disease. Studies show reductions in inflammatory marker C reactive protein and improved blood glucose profiles, including protecting LDL from oxidation. Ginger may help prevent premature ageing as it reduces the effects of advanced-glycation-end-products in the body, whilst increasing muscle regeneration and decreasing muscle degeneration [see in-depth 2017 paper here]
Like the other spices so far mentioned, ginger also exhibits anti-diabetic and anti-obesity activity in many animal studies. Once way it does this is through up-regulating muscular fat burning, but it also improves insulin sensitivity. Increased thermogenesis and reduced feelings of hunger contribute to its efficacy. Ginger also appears to protect the kidneys from damage during metabolic syndrome. Protective effects on the liver are also well documented.
Another, perhaps unexpected effect of ginger demonstrated in male rats is its ability to improve fertility through increased testosterone level, semen quantity and motility.
Safety: No significant safety issues are associated with ginger at dietary levels. WebMD reports that some people can have mild side effects including heartburn, diarrhoea, and general stomach discomfort. Some women have reported extra menstrual bleeding while taking ginger.
Star anise (Illicium verum) has a distinct aniseed flavour and has become increasingly popular of late in mulled wine recipes – although I think this is partly because it is so photogenic. Despite its looks, however, it should be used in moderation as it contains neurotoxins which have led to cases of poisoning – although this may be due to adulteration with Japanese star anise (Illicium anisatum) a toxic relative, leading to the FDA issuing warnings.
Whilst star anise has a wide range of documented actions including antimicrobial, antioxidant, insecticidal, analgesic and sedative effects, all of these benefits are found from much safer spices such as cinnamon, clove and ginger. Interestingly, the majority of the annual star anise crop is used for the manufacture of Tamiflu.
Safety: Neurotoxic effects, possibly from contamination, suggest that the benefits may not be worth the risk.
Black pepper (piper nigrum) is used to season all manner of savoury foods, but it adds a wonderful kick to mulled wine complementing the typical sweet spices wonderfully.
Black pepper has beneficial effects on digestion, stimulating pancreatic digestive enzymes which enhance the digestive capacity and reducing gastrointestinal food transit time.
A 2013 review of black pepper states that “Based on modern cell, animal, and human studies, piperine has been found to have immunomodulatory, anti-oxidant, anti-asthmatic, anti-carcinogenic, anti-inflammatory, anti-ulcer, and anti-amoebic properties.”
Black pepper has another particularly interesting property: it modifies the brush border of the intestines and detoxification function of the liver to greatly increase the bioavailability of many herbal and conventional drugs.
There is also evidence from animal studies for memory enhancing effects and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. Like many of the mulling spices, it has strong antioxidant properties that protect the heart, liver and kidneys against oxidative stress.
Safety: According to WebMD black pepper (and white pepper) are safe when used in food amounts and are probably safe for most people at medicinal doses.
Although human studies are rather sparse the evidence from cell line and animal studies is compelling. Apart from caveats regarding the use of nutmeg and star anise, the health credentials of mulled wine only add to the warm Christmassy glow associated with this aromatic tipple. So go find a recipe and get mulling!