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What Is Cumin, and Should You Eat It?

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11 min read
Summary

Name a spice that’s equally at home in Mexican, Indian, and Middle Eastern food. If you said “cumin,” bingo! There’s a good chance that you’ll find ground or whole cumin seeds in your pantry right now, but do you know everything this spice has to offer?

Cumin (Cuminum cyminum L) is a plant that originated in the Middle East. It’s a low-growing, leafy plant in the same family as carrots and parsley. Cumin is traditionally found in China, India, and around the shores of the Mediterranean. The cumin seed, which is what most people know and use in their kitchen, is the seed of the cumin plant. But before we get into the uses and benefits of cumin, let’s set the record straight on one thing first: how to pronounce the word.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, this is one of those words that Brits and Yanks say differently. In the UK, the common pronunciation of this spice is “kyoo-muhn” (like the cu in Cubic). In the US, it’s more commonly said as “koo-muhn” (as in the ku in Kubrick).

But whichever way you pronounce it, many people know cumin best for its culinary uses. Far fewer people are also aware that this spice has an extensive medicinal and cultural history.

In ancient Egypt, cumin was used in the process of preserving mummies. It’s mentioned in the Bible in the book of Isaiah (28: 25-27). And the prophet Mohammed is quoted as saying in the Koran, “hold on to use the black cumin, because it can heal every disease except the death.” Soldiers used to carry cumin seeds in their pockets to remind them of loved ones waiting for them back home. Even though cumin entered the human diet in Indian, Greek, and Roman populations, European colonization helped spread the spice to the cuisines of North and South America.

Besides its interesting history, what does cumin have to offer? And what does the research say about its health effects?

What Is Cumin?

Cumin is a spice made from the dried seed of the Cuminum cyminum plant. You can find cumin in both ground and whole seed form at most grocery stores. It can vary in color, including white, green, and brown varieties. Cumin has distinct properties as a spice, offering an earthy flavor and warm aroma. Some people describe cumin as a combination of both bitterness and sweetness, making it a versatile spice for many dishes.

Black cumin seeds, Nigella sativa, also known as “black seed,” come from what is technically a different plant family, sharing lineage with buttercups rather than carrots. Black cumin has a more peppery taste than regular cumin. This article will focus mainly on ordinary cumin. But we’ll include black cumin, too, because as you’ll see, it also packs quite a health-boosting punch.

Cumin Nutrition

Both cumin and black cumin are rich in minerals like iron, magnesium, calcium, and manganese. And they contain some omega-3 and -6 fatty acids. But where the cumins really shine are as a source of antioxidants — compounds that can reduce inflammation and prevent oxidative damage in your body. Some of these antioxidants include alkaloids, flavonoids, phenols, and terpenes.

6 Impressive Health Benefits of Cumin

cumin powder in spoon
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Cumin may appear to be just an ordinary spice, but it actually has a number of remarkable health benefits. Here are six cumin benefits you should know about.

1. May improve digestion

Cumin appears to promote digestion by increasing the activity of digestive enzymes, speeding up the digestion process, and increasing the release of bile from the gut.

In a 2013 study, published in the Middle East Journal of Digestive Diseases, researchers gave 57 patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) 20 drops of cumin essential oil per day for four weeks to see if it improved symptoms. IBS is a very common digestive condition in which people often suffer from sporadic bouts of bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, and other changes in bowel habits. The authors concluded that cumin extract might be an inexpensive and convenient option to support digestive health. And its use could significantly improve symptoms reported among people with chronic conditions like IBS.

Other studies have also shown the effectiveness of using black cumin to reduce indigestion, gastrointestinal pain, and a variety of other ailments. Cumin oil has also been used to alleviate complications following abdominal surgery. Animal studies have found that cumin seed extract supplementation could help resolve diarrhea in rats. (In case you’re wondering — I was! — the researchers induced diarrhea by feeding the poor rats castor oil, charcoal, or a compound called PGE2.)

2. May support blood sugar management

Studies also show black cumin may help manage high blood sugar, especially when used alongside oral antidiabetic drugs for diabetes control.

And a 2016 study, published in the International Journal of Molecular and Cellular Medicine, evaluated the effects of vitamin E versus cumin essential oil on HbA1C, a long-term indicator of blood sugar control among 95 patients with diabetes. Three groups took either 800 IU vitamin E, 25 mg cumin oil, or a placebo — and supplemented daily for three months. Markers of blood sugar control were measured. And it was determined that cumin had a broader and more significant positive impact on blood sugar control than vitamin E or placebo.

Another study published in 2017, assessed the effects of 50 and 100 mg doses of green cumin essential oil, given daily for eight weeks, on inflammatory markers and blood sugar among people with type 2 diabetes. The researchers found that cumin was effective in lowering fasting blood sugar, HbA1c, and insulin levels, as well as inflammatory markers among participants. The authors concluded that cumin essential oil could have applications in preventing complications among people with type 2 diabetes.

3. May help improve markers of heart health

Cumin may also improve heart health. And studies show its application lowers specific risk factors for heart disease, such as obesity and blood lipids.

In a study published in 2018, 40 people with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis — a condition associated with significantly altered blood cholesterol levels and glucose control — received either two grams of powdered black cumin seeds or a placebo daily for eight weeks. Participants who received the cumin experienced a significant reduction in weight and body mass index, LDL “bad” cholesterol levels, and serum triglycerides. The cumin group also saw a significant increase in their HDL “good” cholesterol levels after their eight weeks of supplementation.

A 2018 review and meta-analysis also concurred that cumin is a safe approach to managing blood fats and potentially improving heart health. The authors reviewed six randomized controlled trials, including 376 participants, finding that cumin supplementation was very effective in lowering total cholesterol and LDL “bad” cholesterol levels.

And a 2014 study supplemented overweight or obese women with three grams of powdered cumin twice per day for three months. This resulted in the lowering of fasting total cholesterol, triglycerides, LDL “bad” cholesterol, weight and BMI, and an increase in HDL “good” cholesterol. There was no effect in the placebo group. Three grams of powdered cumin is about a teaspoon and a half. If you got your cumin from a supermarket, that would come out to less than five cents a day for a very robust heart-healthy effect, which is a lot less than drugs with similar results and a plethora of negative side effects.

4. May promote healthy weight loss and maintenance

Some research has also been done specifically on the ability of cumin to support healthy weight loss, which can, in turn, reduce your risk for chronic disease.

One study, published in 2015, looked specifically at the effects of cumin supplementation on weight loss and metabolic profiles of people who were overweight. In this study, 78 overweight adults were divided into three groups, receiving either one cumin cyminum L. capsule, one orlistat120 capsule (a drug commonly used to inhibit absorption of dietary fat), or a placebo, three times daily for eight weeks. The authors found that cumin supplementation was just as effective as the orlistat120 medication on weight loss, BMI reduction, and improved insulin sensitivity.

Additionally, the study participants who randomly received cumin benefited without a side effect commonly experienced by orlistat takers: anal leakage. Remember, orlistat causes weight loss by inhibiting fat absorption. With nowhere to go in the body, the fat just, well, takes the express train and can cause fecal incontinence. I’ll take cumin over pooping my pants any day!

Another study by the same authors, published in the Iranian Red Crescent Medical Journal in 2016, looked at the effects of cumin combined with lime juice on weight loss and metabolic markers among 72 overweight participants. The researchers found that, after eight weeks of supplementing with 75 mg cumin, plus lime, the participants reduced their weight and BMI, as well as fasting glucose, triglycerides, total cholesterol, and LDL “bad” cholesterol levels.

5. May have antifungal and antibacterial properties

Cumin — especially in essential oil form — also appears to have antimicrobial properties, proving beneficial to fight off bacteria and fungi. In fact, cumin has been used in India for disinfectant purposes for a long time. The germ-fighting properties in cumin may stem from the bioactive compounds cuminaldehyde, cymene, and terpenoids. Overall, cumin may have some of the most potent antimicrobial properties of any spice there is.

Test tube studies have found cumin essential oil to be effective in fighting common foodborne microbes like E. coli, S. aureus, and S. faecalis, as well as common fungi found in foods. And one lab study found that cumin lowered the drug resistance of certain bacteria. Interestingly, research shows that when heated using stovetop or microwave radiation, the antimicrobial effects of cumin increased.

What does this mean for us? Research suggests that cumin might help preserve food and destroy common germs that could be lurking in it.

6. May fight inflammation and have anticancer properties

Test tube studies show cumin essential oil may have anti-inflammatory effects. And some studies show the ability of cumin extract to suppress tumor growth, reduce tumor presence, and slow the progression of cancer. A 1992 study published in Food and Chemical Toxicology found that, out of nine popular spices and herbs, cumin and basil had the most anticancer properties.

Research shows that Black cumin, or Nigella sativa, seed extract has  anticancer properties in both test tube and in vivo studies. One of the most potent compounds in black cumin is thymoquinone, which research shows has anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties. Some studies have suggested that the thymoquinone in black cumin actually interrupts inflammatory processes in the body and may help prevent cancer. The evidence is so strong, in fact, that many researchers have suggested the use of black cumin extract in the treatment of cancer, either alone or in combination with common chemotherapy drugs.

Potential Risks and Side Effects of Consuming Cumin

herbs and spices on wooden background
iStock.com/GMVozd

While cooking with cumin and eating foods that contain this common spice is largely harmless (and likely beneficial) for most people, there may be some instances in which cumin supplementation should be minimized or avoided.

There is no widely agreed upon dose for cumin supplementation among health professionals. But a typical dose of cumin supplements on store shelves is around 300-600 mg per day. Although considered largely non-toxic, taking doses of cumin larger than this could pose a risk for negative effects.

For example, some studies suggest that cumin:

  • May promote miscarriages when taken in high doses, by stimulating uterine contractions. In fact, cumin has been used specifically to induce miscarriage in some cultures. For this reason, women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant may want to avoid cumin, especially in large doses or in supplemental form.
  • May reduce blood sugar, and therefore should be used with caution among people with low blood sugar levels or who are taking blood sugar-lowering medication for conditions like diabetes.
  • May cause allergic reactions in some people, although allergies to spices are very rare. There have been a few case reports of anaphylaxis associated with ingesting cumin, which has led to previous FDA recalls of cumin.

How to Properly Store Cumin

spices in storage jars
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To maintain freshness, flavor, and quality, it’s important to store cumin properly. Whole cumin seeds can be stored in your freezer to maintain their flavor over a longer period. This can be beneficial if you don’t tend to go through cumin quickly.

If you use this spice regularly, you can keep whole cumin seeds in your pantry for up to one year. If you prefer to purchase ground cumin, this should be kept in a cool, dark place like a kitchen cabinet or pantry. Here, it will last for about six months.

Note that like most dried or ground herbs and spices, cumin isn’t necessarily going to “go bad” if not used in the above time frames. It just may not taste as flavorful or fresh and become less potent the longer you wait to use it.

One easy way to keep a supply of fresh, aromatic, ground cumin is to store the whole seeds in your freezer and grind them as necessary with a small, inexpensive coffee grinder that you devote just to spices.

Black cumin oil, often sold as black seed oil, should be stored in a cool, dry place. It’s best to use it before the expiration date provided by the manufacturer.

Recommended Ways to Use Cumin in Your Kitchen

Much of the research is on cumin seed oil or extract. But the ground or dried cumin typically used in cooking appears to have benefits, too.

Cumin is super easy to find and has a number of delicious culinary uses. You’ll find whole and ground cumin seeds among the other spices in the baking aisle of most grocery stores. You will probably also have luck finding cumin in international markets catering to Middle Eastern, North African, Latin American, or Indian cuisines.

Some popular ways to use cumin include the following dishes:

  • Soups
  • Sauces for pastas and stir-fries
  • Seasoned or cooked vegetables
  • Curries
  • Taco seasoning
  • In cooked grain dishes

Black seed oil has an intense flavor. It’s best consumed raw (unheated). The oil can be taken straight by the teaspoonful — or with some honey and lemon juice (followed by a good amount of water or tea to wash it down). It can also be drizzled on salads like a dressing or mixed into teas, smoothies, and coffee (remembering that it has an intense taste).

Recipes To Try Using Cumin

Here are some mouth-watering recipes using cumin that you might enjoy trying at home!

chickpea shakshuka in iron skillet

1-Pot Chickpea Shakshuka by Minimalist Baker

Shakshuka is a smoky, flavorful North African dish. This version utilizes chickpeas in place of traditional baked eggs. It comes together with an aromatic blend of tomatoes, onions, garlic, and smoky spices, including cumin.

Cilantro-Cumin Black Bean Dip by The New Baguette

This recipe proves that bean dip can handle just about any twist and still be delicious on everything. Here’s a creamy, garlicky spread that combines cilantro, paprika, and cumin for a smoky, fragrant masterpiece.

tomato lentil soup with cumin and dill

Tomato Lentil Soup with Cumin and Dill by Dreena Burton

Here’s a flavorful and belly-warming soup that’s free of soy, dairy, nuts, oil, and gluten. Enjoy this mix of carrots, tomatoes, cauliflower, potatoes, red lentils, and a unique blend of spices, including cumin and dill.

black bean burger

Spicy Southwestern Black Bean Burgers by Brand New Vegan

Black bean burgers are known for being smoky and spicy, often thanks to spices like cumin. This recipe incorporates cumin with a combination of oats (use organic to avoid glyphosate) with black and kidney beans, as well as onion, garlic, and chili powder for an added kick.

vegan palak tofu paneer

Vegan Palak Tofu Paneer by Vegan Richa

Palak paneer is a traditional Indian recipe that uses cheese. This recipe substitutes tofu (go organic to steer clear of GMOs) for the cheese, and melds it with a creamy combination of garlic, spinach, tomato, cumin, garam masala, and ginger.

Should You Use Cumin?

Cumin, most commonly used in ground or dried form for cooking flavorful and aromatic dishes, offers many potential health benefits and has a very low potential for adverse effects. Many of the studies showing potent health benefits are on cumin essential oil or black cumin (“black seed”) oil. But there are also some promising studies that indicate whole or ground cumin seeds may help lower inflammation and have protective properties, as well as aid in weight loss. And cumin is an excellent pantry staple for anyone looking to spice up their cooking and enjoy its most convincing benefit of all — its delicious taste.

Tell us in the comments:

  • Do you use cumin?
  • What’s your favorite way to use cumin in cooking?
  • Have you ever taken cumin oil or black seed oil?

Featured image: iStock.com/morisfoto

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