Did you know that every time you add spices to your meal, you’re actually boosting its nutritional content without adding to its calorie content? There’s a wide variety of spices available today, but here’s one that will surely get your attention: cumin.
Cumin is loved by many not only for its versatility in the kitchen, but also because of the many health benefits it offers. Keep reading to find out why this spice is highly deserving of a place in your spice rack.
Dubbed as the second most popular spice in the world (next to black pepper),1 cumin (Cuminum cyminum) comes from a small flowering herbaceous plant from the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae family,2 which also includes parsley, fennel and hemlock. The plant, which grows about 1 to 2 feet tall,3 is actually native to the East Mediterranean to South Asia regions,4 but is now grown all over the world.
The aromatic seeds are the part of the plant that’s most widely utilized. These cumin “seeds” which are actually the plant’s small dried fruits.5 Cumin powder is made from these seeds. You can actually use both whole and ground cumin seeds, which are both available all year round, for culinary purposes.
Today, cumin is a spice that’s highly valued in different cuisines. Mexicans, Indians and North Africans love using it to add color and flavor to their dishes. Cumin is also a primary component of curry powder, blended with other herbs and spices.
But what exactly does cumin taste like? According to the George Mateljan Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to help you eat and cook the healthiest ways possible, cumin adds a nutty and peppery flavor to foods.6 Cumin seeds’ strong flavor and bitter aroma warm your taste buds, mainly due to the essential oils they contain.7
Cumin seeds’ health benefits mainly come from their phytochemicals,8 which are touted to have antioxidant, carminative and anti-flatulent properties.9 They’re also a good source of dietary fiber, vitamins A, E, B and C and antioxidant carotenes lutein and zeaxanthin. Other health-promoting minerals in cumin include:10
- Iron and copper — Both minerals are essential for red blood cell production and formation.11,12
- Zinc — It’s a cofactor that’s needed by enzymes that are crucial for many metabolic processes.13
- Potassium — A crucial component of cells and body fluids, this is necessary for controlling blood pressure and heart rate.14,15
- Manganese — A co-actor for superoxide dismutase, this is a powerful antioxidant enzyme.16
Considering its small size, it’s absolutely impressive that cumin can benefit your overall health, and may even help alleviate ailments, such as:
- Stress — A 2011 animal study published in the Pharmaceutical Biology journal found that cumin helped inhibit stress-induced biochemical changes in rats, which also improved their memory and cognition. According to the study authors:17
- Respiratory disorders — This spice may help inhibit buildup of mucus and phlegm in the respiratory tract.18
- Diabetes — Research is still ongoing, but animal studies found that cumin may be beneficial for managing diabetes.19,20
- Cancer — Cumin may have anticancer properties, as it has been found to help suppress tumor cell proliferation.21
“This study provides scientific support for the antistress, antioxidant, and memory-enhancing activities of cumin extract and substantiates that its traditional use as a culinary spice in foods is beneficial and scientific in combating stress and related disorders.”
Cumin’s uses as a culinary spice have been well-known ever since ancient times, but did you know that there are other uses for it as well? Ancient Egyptians used cumin to mummify pharaohs, while in the Bible, it was mentioned that the spice was given to priests as tithes.
Cumin even became a symbol of love and fidelity. Guests attending a wedding carried cumin in their pockets, while wives sent off their soldier husbands to war with cumin bread. Meanwhile, Arabs believed that a concoction made from ground cumin, honey and pepper worked as an aphrodisiac.22
But aside from being added to food, cumin was highly valued for its traditional medicinal uses. The seeds, for example, can be infused in water that, when ingested, may help relieve flatulence and indigestion.23
Today, the most popular use for cumin is as a seasoning or condiment, adding a deep flavor to various recipes. This spice is a mainstay in curries, and is used in spice blends like garam masala.24
Cumin seeds, aside from being added to curry powder, can be mixed in barbecue sauces, marinades and chili.25 Cumin also goes well with lentils, garbanzo beans and black beans, its hearty flavor complementing the mild flavor of these foods.26
Whole cumin seeds can be gently roasted before grinding and adding them to dishes. This will intensify their flavor.27 Another tip: Only grind the seeds when you’re ready to use them, to keep the fragrance and flavor intact. Remember that ground cumin is spicy and peppery, so don’t use excessively, especially if you cannot tolerate overly spicy foods.
If you don’t have cumin seeds, you can settle for the powdered form – but what is cumin powder made of? Basically, this is just very finely grinded cumin seeds. Beware, however, as some brands blend the cumin with inferior and adulterated spice mixes. There’s also an instance where a brand of cumin powder was examined and found to contain traces of lead and chromium.28 So, if you have the seeds on hand, just make your own homemade cumin powder by grinding them with a mortar and pestle.
If you don’t have whole cumin seeds, don’t worry because there are other spices you can use in its place. According to The Spruce Eats, some of the best substitutes for cumin spice are ground coriander, caraway seeds, garam masala and chili powder.29
This spice can also be used to make refreshing and healthy cumin tea that you can drink before bedtime to promote optimal sleep. Simply add a teaspoon of cumin seeds in a cup of water and let it boil. Afterward, let steep for 10 minutes.30
You can easily search for recipes with cumin as one of the standout ingredients. Here’s one from All Recipes you can try:31
Grilled Tomato and Cumin Salsa
- Preheat the grill.
- Place the tomatoes, onion, chili and garlic in a medium-sized baking dish, and then drizzle with coconut oil.
- Grill for five to 10 minutes, or until the outsides of vegetables are lightly charred. Make sure to check them frequently to avoid burning.
- Remove the vegetables from the stove. Remove and throw out the chili stem, tomato cores and garlic skins.
- Use a food processor to chop the charred vegetables coarsely. Transfer to a bowl and add the cumin, lime juice, Himalayan salt and coriander.
Growing cumin is easy if the weather conditions in your area meet the plant’s requirement. According to Gardening Know How, cumin grows best in places with long, hot summers (three to four months), where temperatures reach 85 degrees F (29 degrees C) in the daytime. Sow the cumin seeds during springtime, in rows that are 2 feet apart. The plant grows best in fertile, well-draining soil.
If you live in a place with a cooler climate, however, plant the seeds indoors four weeks before the last spring frost. Sow them shallowly, at least a quarter inch below the surface. The cumin seeds should be kept moist during germination. Once the temperatures have exceeded 60 degrees F (16 degrees C), or higher, you can move them outdoors.
After the small white or pink flowers have blossomed, you can then harvest the cumin seeds. Do this carefully by hand. The seeds should be brown when you harvest them. The best time to harvest is in the morning, as this is when the aroma and flavor of cumin is strongest.32
Once harvested, store the seeds in an airtight container and keep in a cool and dark place. Once ground, use the product immediately before it loses its flavor.33
Cumin can also be enjoyed as an essential oil. This is produced through steam distillation of the seeds.34 Like its raw spice form, cumin oil also provides body-wide benefits, if used in aromatherapy.
The valuable components of this oil mainly come from health-promoting compounds such as cuminal, B-pinene, B-myrcene, P-cymene, y-terpinene and p-mentha-1,4-dien-7-ol.35 Here are some of cumin oil’s benefits:
- Helps eliminate bacteria — A 2005 study found that cumin essential oil was found to help protect against bacteria species like Curtobacterium, Clavibacter, Erwinia, Rhodococcus, Xanthomonas, Agrobacterium and Ralstonia.36
- May have antioxidant benefits — Published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, a study noted that the volatile oils from ginger and cumin were found to have antioxidant activity.37
- Has a tonic effect — It can tone up your different body systems, such as the excretory, digestive and nervous systems, to name a few.38
- Helps ease convulsions, stress and anxiety.39
- Helps remove toxins from your body — This oil can work as a diuretic, and may help eliminate excess water, salt and toxins from your body.40
Before using cumin oil, make sure that you dilute it in a safe carrier oil like olive or coconut oil. It may lead to skin sensitivity in some individuals, so do a skin patch test prior to using it. Do not use if any allergic reactions occur. Pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children should get a physician’s permission prior to using this essential oil.