Health Benefits of Cumin
Author: Winston Craig, MPH, PhD, RD.
Cumin (Cuminum cyminum) is an ancient spice that grows wild in Israel. Jesus made reference to cumin, dill, and mint, flavoring spices used by the Jews in the first century (Matthew 23:23). Cumin is also mentioned in the Old Testament (Isaiah 28:25). It has always been popular in Middle Eastern dishes, and the oil has been used for perfumes.
Cumin originates from the Eastern Mediterranean region, especially Egypt, Iran, and Turkey. Cumin was described by medical authors in ancient Egypt. It’s pungent, and distinctive aromatic flavor makes it popular in Middle Eastern, Moroccan, and Indian cuisine. Today, cumin is commonly added to curry and chili powders, salsa, chutneys and sauces. It can also be added directly to flavor soups, stews, or casseroles. Cumin is commonly used to flavor falafel and hummus and other Middle Eastern dishes. It is also traditionally added to enchiladas, tacos, and other Mexican foods.
The ancient Egyptians sprinkled cumin seeds on bread and cakes. It was a common seasoning used by the Greeks, and a container of ground cumin powder normally appeared at the dinner table. It was also used extensively in ancient Roman cuisine.
However, cumin lost a lot of its popularity in most of Europe during the Middle Ages, although it has always been popular among the Spanish.
Warm Aromatic Flavor
Today, cumin is used in some Dutch cheeses such as Leyden cheese and in some French traditional breads. It has also been used to flavor certain beverages. Cumin is often confused with caraway in recipes, but cumin seeds are oval-shaped and light brown in color, have a larger size, and a stronger aromatic flavor than caraway. Cumin seeds are often toasted to accent their flavor. The warm aromatic flavor derives from cuminaldehyde while pyrazines comprise the aroma of toasted cumin.
Cumin is widely used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine in India for the treatment of dyspepsia and diarrhea. It is an astringent herb that is recognized as an appetite stimulant, and helps control flatulence. Cumin has antispasmodic activity and helps with minor digestive problems. Cumin seeds are noted to be rich in important minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc, as well as some of the B vitamins.
The essential oil of cumin has the potential for controlling bacterial diseases. Its oil is rich in terpenoids, such as cuminaldehyde, and has a strong bacteriocidal activity, against both gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria. Cumin extract has shown an inhibitory activity against H. pylori infection. An extract of cumin, or turmeric, is very efficient at killing Helicobacter pylori. Cumin also has significant antifungal activity.
Cumin belongs to the parsley family of herbs and spices, the same family that contains anise, caraway, coriander, dill, fennel, and parsley. The parsley family contains some unique phytochemicals, such as phthalides andpolyacetylenes which show cancer-protective activity and anti-inflammatory properties.
Cumin has been seen to effectively decrease the incidence of chemically-induced tumors of the stomach, colon, and cervix. Its cancer-preventive activity can be explained by its significant antioxidant activity and the ability of cumin to modulate the metabolism of carcinogens. Cumin seeds are known to induce the activity of glutathione-S-transferase, a protective enzyme that helps eliminate cancer causing substances. Cumin has a significant level of caffeic, chlorogenic, ferulic and other phenolics acids that have anti-inflammatory activity, as well as the phytoestrogen, genistein.
The activation of nuclear transcription factor kappa B has now been linked with a variety of inflammatory diseases, including cancer, atherosclerosis, diabetes, allergies, asthma, arthritis, and psoriasis. The pathway that activates this transcription factor can be interrupted by phytochemicals derived from spices such as cumin, turmeric, and garlic.
Cumin also has the ability to enhance insulin sensitivity. In a limited number of studies, cumin seeds have been reported to be hypoglycemic. Cuminaldehyde, found in cumin seeds, has an inhibitory activity towards glucose metabolism and shows promise as an anti-diabetic agent.
Cumin was seen to normalize blood glucose levels when fed to diabetic rats for 6 weeks. It also produced a significant reduction in the blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Cumin is being tested further to see whether its blood glucose lowering properties (similar to the action of an oral hypoglycemic drug) is useful for managing diabetes in humans.
Black cumin (Nigella sativa) is unrelated to regular cumin, but is also used to flavor breads and curries in the Middle East. It is also a popular spice in India and Turkey, in addition to the Middle East. The seeds have a spicy, fruity flavor and were utilized as an important seasoning in Europe before the introduction of pepper from SE Asia. It is been commonly used in traditional Arabian and Islamic folk medicine as a cure for all kinds of ailments, including hemorrhoids, fevers, and stomach upsets. Black cumin seeds have many proposed medicinal properties such as bronchodilatory, hypotensive, antibacterial, analgesic, anti-inflammatory and immuno-potentiating properties.