It grows wild in Israel, where, long ago, Jesus made reference to it as a flavoring spice used by the Jews (Matthew 23:23). It’s also mentioned in the Old Testament (Isaiah 28:25, 27). This amazing herb has always been popular in Middle Eastern dishes, and its oil brings a special scent to perfumes.
Cumin (Cuminum cyminum) originates from the eastern Mediterranean region, especially Egypt, Iran, and Turkey. Its pungent and distinctive aromatic flavor makes it popular in Middle eastern, Moroccan, and Indian cuisine.
The ancient Egyptians sprinkled cumin seeds on bread and cakes, and it was a common seasoning used by the Greeks and Romans. It was customary for a container of ground cumin powder to be on the dinner table.
However, cumin lost a lot of its popularity in most of Europe during the Middle Ages, although it has always remained in vogue among the Spanish.
Today, cumin is commonly added to curry and chili powders, salsa, chutneys, and sauces. It’s added directly to flavor soups, stews, or casseroles. The herb is commonly found in falafel, hummus, and other Middle eastern dishes, as well as being included in enchiladas, tacos, and various other traditional Mexican foods.
Cumin can be found in some Dutch cheeses such as Leyden cheese and various traditional French breads. It even flavors certain beverages.
It’s often confused with caraway in recipes, but cumin seeds are oval-shaped, light brown in color, larger in size, and deliver a stronger aromatic flavor. This is why they’re often toasted to accent their distinctive flavor.
Cumin is widely used in traditional ayurvedic medicine in India for the treatment of dyspepsia and diarrhea. It’s an astringent herb that’s recognized as an appetite stimulant, and helps control flatulence. This digestion aid boasts antispasmodic activity and addresses minor digestive problems.
The seeds are rich in important minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc, as well as several of the B vitamins.
The essential oil of cumin carries the promise of potentially controlling bacterial diseases. Its oil is rich in terpenoids, such as cuminaldehyde, and generates strong bacteriocidal activity against both gram-positive and-negative bacteria. Cumin extract has been shown to inhibit H. pylori infection. An extract of cumin (turmeric) is very efficient at killing Helicobacter pylori.
It also provides 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 boasts some unique phytochemicals such as phthalides and polyacetylenes, which show cancer-protective activity and anti-inflammatory properties.
This herb has been seen to effectively decrease the incidence of chemically induced tumors of the stomach, colon, and cervix. Its significant antioxidant activity and the ability to modulate the metabolism of carcinogens (toxins) explain its cancer-preventive prowess. Cumin seeds are known to induce the activity of glutathione-S-transferase, a protective enzyme that helps eliminate cancer-causing substances. Cumin offers a significant level of caffeic, chlorogenic, ferulic, and other phenolic acids that have anti-inflammatory potential.
The activation of nuclear transcription factor kappaB 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 enhances insulin sensitivity. In a limited number of studies, cumin seeds have been reported to be hypoglycemic. Cuminaldehyde, found in cumin seeds, generates an inhibitory activity toward glucose metabolism and shows promise as an antidiabetic agent.
Cumin normalized blood glucose levels when fed to diabetic rats for six weeks. It also produced a significant reduction in the blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels. It’s being tested further to see whether its blood glucose lowering properties (similar to the action of an oral hypoglycemic drug) are 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’s 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 Southeast Asia. It’s been commonly used in traditional Arabian and Islamic folk medicine as a cure for all kinds of ailments, including hemorrhoids, fevers, and stomach upsets.
Winston J. Craig, Ph.D., R.D., is professor of nutrition at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.