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A gingerbread man

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STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: LS1.B

CCSS: Reading Informational Text: 1

TEKS: 6.12D, 7.11A, 7.12A, 8.3B, B.3B, B.10B

Spice It Up!

The spices in your kitchen pantry look nothing like the bark, berries, flowers, roots, and seeds they come from. Here’s the scoop on five seasonings that give gingerbread cookies their kick.

AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT the origins of spices used in cooking and baking.

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CINNAMON

Cinnamon is the dried inner bark of trees of the genus Cinnamomum, native to Southeast Asia and India. It contains cinnamaldehyde. When you eat foods flavored with cinnamon, this compound activates your trigeminal nerve. This nerve allows you to feel sensations in your face, nose, and mouth. “Cinnamaldehyde tricks you into thinking that your mouth is physically hot by setting off the same nervous system signals [as warmth],” says Terry Miesle, a flavorist based in Illinois. Chili peppers cause a similar reaction. But instead of a burst of fiery heat, he says, “cinnamon gives you a nice warm feeling for a long time.”

Cinnamon is the dried inner bark of trees of the genus Cinnamomum. These trees grow in Southeast Asia and India. The spice contains cinnamaldehyde. When you eat cinnamon-flavored foods, this compound activates your trigeminal nerve. This nerve supplies feeling in your face, nose, and mouth. “Cinnamaldehyde tricks you into thinking that your mouth is physically hot by setting off the same nervous system signals [as warmth],” says Terry Miesle, a flavorist in Illinois. Chili peppers have a similar effect, but with quick, fiery heat. Instead, “cinnamon gives you a nice warm feeling for a long time,” he says.

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GINGER

You can’t have gingerbread without ginger. It’s the knobby root of the herb Zingiber officinale. Once harvested, ginger is dried and ground. During the drying process, a chemical reaction creates zingerone. This compound has a sweet, spicy flavor and creates a warming sensation in your mouth the same way cinnamaldehyde does—only faster. Ginger plants have been grown in Southeast Asia for thousands of years. Traders later introduced the spice to Europe. Historians credit Queen Elizabeth I of England for coming up with the idea for the first gingerbread man in the 16th century.

You can’t have gingerbread without ginger. It’s the knobby root of the herb Zingiber officinale. After ginger is collected, it’s dried and ground. When it’s drying, a chemical reaction happens. This creates zingerone, a compound with a sweet, spicy flavor. The compound causes a warm feeling in your mouth, like cinnamaldehyde does, but faster. Ginger plants have grown in Southeast Asia for thousands of years. Traders later brought the spice to Europe. Historians say the first gingerbread man was the idea of Queen Elizabeth I of England. That was back in the 16th century.

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NUTMEG

The seeds of trees of the genus Myristica from Indonesia look like the pit of a peach. Once the shell of a seed is removed, the kernel inside is ground into spice. Rather than blend in with the other warmer gingerbread spices, the citrusy compounds in nutmeg provide a contrasting flavor. The opposing flavors help each one stand out. “They’re in there to provide a little extra character,” says Miesle.

Trees of the genus Myristica grow in Indonesia. Their seeds look like peach pits. The shell of a seed is removed, and the kernel inside is ground into spice. Nutmeg contains citrusy compounds. They don’t blend in with the other warmer gingerbread spices. Instead, they provide a contrast. The different flavors help each one stand out. “They’re in there to provide a little extra character,” says Miesle.

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CLOVES

Wars were fought over the Indonesian “Spice Islands,” where this and other spices, like nutmeg, were once exclusively grown. Cloves are the dried flower buds of the Syzygium aromaticum tree. They have an intense sweet, bitter, and spicy flavor. Cloves also have a tongue-numbing effect. That’s because they contain a natural anesthetic called eugenol. The compound temporarily blocks nerves’ ability to transmit sensations to the brain.

Wars were fought over the Indonesian “Spice Islands.” Back then, that was the only area where spices like this one and nutmeg were grown. Cloves are the dried flower buds of the Syzygium aromaticum tree. They have a strong sweet, bitter, and spicy flavor. Cloves also make your tongue feel numb. That’s because they contain a natural anesthetic called eugenol. The compound blocks nerves for a while, so they can’t send signals to the brain.

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ALLSPICE

Don’t let the name fool you: Allspice is a single spice made from the dried berries of Pimenta officinalis, a tree that grows in the Caribbean and Central America. The spice was brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus, who mistook the berries for the similar-looking fruits used to make black pepper. Allspice is so named because it contains some of the flavoring compounds present in cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. “It’s got a little bit of everything,” says Miesle.

Don’t let the name fool you. Allspice is a single spice made from the dried berries of Pimenta officinalis. This tree grows in the Caribbean and Central America. Christopher Columbus brought the berries to Europe. He thought they were a different fruit used to make black pepper. The two fruits look similar. So why is it named allspice? It contains some of the flavoring compounds found in cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. “It’s got a little bit of everything,” says Miesle. 

COMMUNICATING INFORMATION: Using details from the text, explain how compounds in spices interact with the human body to produce our perception of taste.

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