FWD 2 ABC | HerbalEGram | October 2016

HerbalEGram: Volume 13, Issue 10, October 2016

Food as Medicine: Cumin

(Cuminum cyminum, Apiaceae)

Editor’s Note: Each month, HerbalEGram highlights a conventional food and briefly explores its history, traditional uses, nutritional profile, and modern medicinal research. We also feature a nutritious recipe for an easy-to-prepare dish with each article to encourage readers to experience the extensive benefits of these whole foods. With this series, we hope our readers will gain a new appreciation for the foods they see at the supermarket and frequently include in their diets. The basic materials for this series were compiled by dietetic interns from Texas State University in San Marcos and the University of Texas at Austin through the American Botanical Council’s (ABC’s) Dietetic Internship Program, led by ABC Education Coordinator Jenny Perez. We would like to acknowledge Jenny Perez, ABC Special Projects Director Gayle Engels, and ABC Chief Science Officer Stefan Gafner, PhD, for their contributions to this project.

By Hannah Baumana and Taraneh Woob

a HerbalGram Assistant Editor

b ABC Dietetics Intern (Texas State University, 2015)


History and Traditional Use


Cumin (Cuminum cyminum, Apiaceae) is a delicate, herbaceous annual in the aromatic parsley family.1,2 It is native to the eastern Mediterranean region and southwestern Asia.1 While Iran and India are the largest global producers and exporters of cumin, it is cultivated in areas of the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and northern Africa as well.1,3 Cumin is cultivated for its aromatic fruits, which appear on the market as “cumin seed.” The fruits will be referred to as “seeds” in this article.

Cumin prefers a warm climate and sandy soil.1,2 It grows to about 19 inches in height and produces five-petaled white or pinkish flowers that are arranged in umbels (umbrella-like formations).4 The slender, dark green leaves have a fluffy, feather-like appearance. The seeds are roughly a quarter of an inch long, oblong, and yellowish-brown in color.5 The dried seed is used whole or in powdered form, or as a source of essential oil.1,4 Known for its versatile, earthy flavor, cumin is the second-most popular spice in the world today, surpassed only by black pepper (Piper nigrum, Piperaceae).1

Phytochemicals and Constituents 

Cumin seed contains an abundance of micro- and macronutrients. Eighteen amino acids have been recognized in cumin seeds, of which eight are essential amino acids.1 Essential amino acids cannot be created by the body and therefore must be supplied in the diet. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and they aid in growth, digestion, and repair of bodily tissue.6 Fourteen flavone glycosides, which are known to have antioxidant properties, have been documented in cumin: seven from the apigenin group, five from the lutein group, and two from the chrysoeriol group.1 Of the 3-4% essential oil present in cumin, cuminaldehyde appears at 35-60%.1 Cuminaldehyde has demonstrated the ability to inhibit aldose reductase and α-glucosidase, thus making it a promising pharmacological agent for anti-diabetic therapies.7 Lastly, cumin is an exceptional source of minerals, such as iron, potassium, and magnesium, as well as B vitamins and antioxidant vitamins such as vitamins A, C, and E.2

In addition, de-oiled cumin, or “spent” cumin, is a rich source of minerals and macronutrients. Spent cumin is the leftover byproduct of the seed husk after oil extraction. Researchers have found that spent cumin had a dietary fiber content of 62.1%, most of which is insoluble fiber.8 Spent cumin currently is considered industrial waste and, as a result, does not have any commercial value. However, this byproduct has great potential as an additive in conventional foods and may be used as a therapeutic agent, particularly as a source of dietary fiber.9 Dietary fiber can lower blood glucose and cholesterol, enhance digestion, and promote healthy bowel movements.

Historical and Commercial Uses

Throughout history, cumin seed, known as jeera in Hindi, has been used traditionally in a wide variety of ways. Medicinal use of cumin seed has its roots in Ayurvedic medicine, which originated in India more than 3,000 years ago and remains one of the oldest systems of traditional medicine in the world.10 Cumin seed has astringent, carminative, and anti-parasitic properties and has been used for the treatment of a variety of gastrointestinal disorders.11 Cumin has been used to stimulate appetite, enhance digestion, relieve dyspepsia, flatulence, and hiccups, as well as diarrhea and dysentery.2,3 Other uses include treatment of jaundice and laryngitis, and as a menstrual stimulant in Unani (traditional Greco-Islamic) medicine.5,11,12 Cumin is still used by practitioners of traditional Siddha medicine in South India as a complementary therapy to treat conditions associated with heart disease, including dyslipidemia, hyperglycemia, hypertension, obesity, and atherosclerosis.13

Cumin’s unique flavor profile has made it an integral spice in various cuisines. The spice was so valuable in ancient times that it could be used to tithe in the church in place of money.2 Historically, the peppery profile of cumin made it a viable substitute for black pepper, a much more expensive and difficult-to-obtain product. Cumin was used widely to season soups, meats, and breads. It is a staple of cuisine in Mexico, India, and the Middle East. Currently, cumin is used globally in a wide variety of dishes, condiments, and spice mixtures.1

Ancient Egyptians used cumin for the embalming and mummification of pharaohs.5 In the Middle Ages, in Europe, it was recognized as a symbol of love and devotion. Cumin was thought to have the power to keep livestock and spouses from wandering away; therefore, guests brought cumin to weddings and soldiers’ wives would bake cumin bread prior to their husbands’ deployment. In the Arabic tradition, cumin has been used in a concoction with pepper and honey to be used as an aphrodisiac. Cumin has been valued for its flavor and fragrance, as well as medicinal and multi-purpose functions for centuries, and continues to be one of the highest-selling spices today.

Modern Research

Although cumin seed is among the most popular household spices and is valued for its unique flavor, modern research is providing science-based evidence to confirm many of its traditional medicinal uses.

Cumin oil contains constituents that produce antimalarial activity,14 though cumin is not an approved antimalarial drug. The most effective antimalarials currently available are derivatives of artemisinin, which is derived from the Artemisia annua (Asteraceae) plant. Malaria is one of the deadliest diseases in the world and the Plasmodium parasite, which causes malaria, is becoming drug-resistant to artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs) at an alarming rate. Scientists are investigating other natural products, such as cumin oil, as adjuvants that may make it more difficult for Plasmodium to develop resistance to ACTs.

A considerable amount of research has been conducted to explore the potential of phytochemicals found in cumin for their antimicrobial properties, which can improve food preservation technology and human health. In an in vitro study, an aqueous extract (decoction) of cumin seeds was investigated for its bactericidal properties against Helicobacter pylori. The extract showed 100% inhibition of growth by viable colony count within 30 minutes of application.15 Helicobacter pylori, one of the leading causes of gastric cancer, affects more than half of the global population and can also lead to severe gastric and duodenal ulcers.15,16 The first line of ulcer therapy for symptomatic individuals involves a proton pump inhibitor and two antibiotics; however, antibiotic resistance is an increasing problem and there is a need for alternative, natural antimicrobial agents.15

The anti-ulcerogenic and potential cancer-preventing effects of cumin suggest that dietary consumption may have therapeutic implications.15 A cumin seed decoction appears to be an effective, inexpensive, and easily accessible method of obtaining cumin’s active constituents in solution, which can benefit countries with limited access to antibiotics. In another study, cumin essential oil displayed antibacterial activity against Escherichia coli (E. coli), Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus), and Streptococcus faecalis (S. faecalis).3 Further research in this area is warranted, as these data suggest cumin oil has the potential to effectively control pathogen growth, which could be used in the food supply to reduce foodborne disease outbreaks. In 2015, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 61 foodborne illness outbreaks in the United States related to Escherichia, Staphylococcus, and Streptococcus bacteria.17

The effects of different cumin extracts and spent cumin on various digestive enzymatic activities have been studied in vitro. Researchers found that hot water and saline extracts of cumin showed significant increase in activity of the following salivary and pancreatic enzymes: amylase, protease, lipase, and phytase.9 Using the same assays, spent cumin showed comparable effects. Stimulating the activity of salivary and pancreatic enzymes can enhance the digestion and absorption of macromolecules. Enhancing phytase activity improves bioavailablity of nutrients, especially iron and zinc.

Compared with wheat flour and milled rice, spent cumin is a richer source of iron, zinc, dietary fiber, and vitamins B2 (riboflavin) and B3 (niacin).9 The dietary fiber content even exceeds that of many fruits and vegetables, percentage-wise.8 Spent cumin has untapped potential to be used as a healthy, functional, and inexpensive product in the human food supply, as long as food-grade solvents are used during the oil extraction.

Naturally-derived anti-hyperglycemic compounds have been investigated as a means to offer a holistic approach to treat diabetes. Many diabetic medications have adverse events that include nausea, gastrointestinal cramping, weight gain, and hypoglycemia. An in vitro study explored the anti-diabetic effect of two different concentrations of cumin oil extract (0.5 mg/mL and 1.0 mg/mL) compared to the control agents acarbose and quercitrin in rats.7 The cumin extract had an inhibitory effect against two enzymatic targets for the treatment of diabetic complications and management of postprandial (after-meal) hyperglycemia comparable to acarbose and quercitrin. Cuminaldehyde, a phytochemical isolated from cumin seed produced an additional inhibitory response against the targeted enzymes, although results varied with concentrations tested. Cuminaldehyde shows promising effects for an array of pharmacological actions with regard to anti-diabetic therapy.



Nutrient Profile18


Macronutrient Profile: (Per 1 tablespoon whole seeds [approx. 6 g])

22 calories

1.1 g protein

2.65 g carbohydrate

1.3 g fat

Secondary Metabolites: (Per 1 tablespoon whole seeds [approx. 6 g])

Excellent source of:

Iron: 3.98 mg (22.1% DV)

Very good source of:

Manganese: 0.2 mg (10% DV)


Good source of:

Calcium: 56 mg (5.6% DV)

Magnesium: 22 mg (5.5% DV)

Also provides:

Potassium: 107 mg (3.1% DV)

Phosphorus: 30 mg (3% DV)

Thiamin: 0.04 mg (2.7% DV)

Dietary Fiber: 0.6 g (2.4% DV)

Vitamin A: 76 IU (1.5% DV)

Vitamin B6: 0.03 mg (1.5% DV)

Niacin: 0.28 mg (1.4% DV)

Riboflavin: 0.02 mg (1.2% DV)


Trace amounts:

Vitamin C: 0.5 mg (0.8% DV)

Vitamin E: 0.2 mg (0.7% DV)

Vitamin K: 0.3 mcg (0.4% DV)

Folate: 1 mcg (0.3% DV)


DV = Daily Value as established by the US Food and Drug Administration, based on a 2,000-calorie diet.



Recipe: Warm Chickpea Salad with Cumin

Adapted from Faith Durand19



  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons whole cumin seeds
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes, or to taste
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
  • 2 15-ounce cans chickpeas (garbanzo beans), rinsed and drained
  • 1/2 cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained and finely chopped
  • 3/4 cup Italian parsley leaves, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
  • 1 lemon, zested and juiced
  • 1 English cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced
  • Salt to taste



  1. Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the cumin seeds and crushed red pepper and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, for about one minute or until the seeds are toasted. The cumin will turn slightly darker in color and smell fragrant.
  2. Turn the heat to medium low and add the garlic. Cook, stirring frequently, for about three minutes or until the garlic is turning golden but not brown.
  3. Add the drained chickpeas and chopped tomatoes and turn the heat up to medium high. Cook, stirring frequently, until the chickpeas are warmed through and shiny with oil. Turn off the heat.
  4. Stir the parsley, mint, lemon juice and zest, and cucumber into the chickpea mixture. Taste and add salt as necessary.
  5. Refrigerate for at least an hour and preferably overnight. Serve slightly warmed or at room temperature.



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