Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
2 Aug

Smart Spice: Cumin

What do you know about cumin? Cumin seeds are pungent, potent little things with the ability to significantly change the trajectory of a dish. They are featured prominently in Mexican, Mediterranean, Indian, Middle Eastern, and certain Chinese cuisines. Back in the Middle Ages, cumin was one of the most popular – and most accessible – condiments for the spice-crazy Europeans, and stories tell of soldiers going off to war with loaves of cumin bread in their satchels for good luck. Cumin originated in the Mediterranean, and it was used extensively by the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Persians, and just about everyone in that region. It is not to be confused with caraway, which is actually called “cumin” in multiple European languages. They are somewhat similar in taste and appearance, but cumin is spicier and, in my opinion, tastier.

As is usually the case with spices that have been in use for thousands of years, cumin appears to provide a number of potential health benefits, from anti-glycation agent to antioxidant to anti-osteoporotic, and much more. Note that many of the surnames in the following PubMed links are of Indian origin. Cumin, along with ghee and a host of other spices, played a prominent role in the Ayurvedic medicinal traditions, and I love seeing a lot of these supposedly “old wives’ tales” get preliminary scientific justification:

  • The jury is still out on whether dietary AGEs are worrisome, but it’s clear that the formation of endogenous AGEs is a much bigger concern, especially for diabetics. In diabetic rats, cumin extract was more effective at reducing blood glucose and AGE production than glibenclamide, an anti-diabetic drug.
  • Cumin’s anti-glycation properties proved useful in another study, in which diabetic rats were able to stave off cataracts after oral dosing with cumin powder.
  • Another study found that cumin extract reduced total cholesterol, triglycerides, and pancreatic inflammatory markers in diabetic rats. It also prevented excessive weight loss. Again, it beat out glibenclamide.
  • Oral doses (25, 50, 100, 200 mg/kg) of cumin on consecutive days improved the immune response of mice with compromised immune systems due to restraint-induced stress. These effects were marked by a reduction in elevated cortisol and adrenal gland size, an increase in the weight of the thymus and spleen, and replenishment of depleted T cells. There was a dose dependent response, but all doses had beneficial effects.
  • An extract of cumin had anti-osteoporotic effects on rats, similar to estradiol, but without the associated weight gain. Cumin-dosed (orally, 1 mg/kg) osteoporotic rats had increased bone density and improved bone microarchitecture.
  • Cumin protected the livers of rats from ethanol- and rancid sunflower oil-induced toxicity.
  • One study even seems to suggest a role for cumin in weaning addicts off of opiates – here – by reducing tolerance (yeah, it could increase the subjective high, but it would mean less product was required) and dependence.
  • Antioxidant content of commonly available commercial cumin in Pakistan was found to be “potent.” It’s unclear whether the same holds true for cumin in other countries, but I imagine it probably is. Go with whole seeds and grind as needed, if possible, as ground cumin (and anything, really) will be more exposed to the air and thus more liable to degrade. If you’ve got ground cumin, store it in the fridge in an airtight, sealed container. It also helps to heat the seeds before grinding to really release the flavor. I usually toast them on a cast iron skillet over low heat for a couple minutes (just wait for the smell and don’t let them burn; you’ll know it when you smell it, because it’s somewhat reminiscent of a fine body odor), but one study found that microwaving whole cumin seeds actually preserved the aromatic and antioxidant compounds better than traditional oven roasting. Go figure.

So, what can you do with the stuff besides make curries?

Curries are great and expected places to insert cumin, of course, but why not branch out and explore? Cumin used to act as a replacement for expensive black pepper for people who couldn’t afford it, so why not treat it like that yourself and add it to things you’d otherwise never think to? Cumin and scrambled eggs. Cumin and sweet potatoes. Cumin and homemade stock for a nice hot drink before bed. If you’d eat it with black pepper, try it with cumin – not for any health benefits, necessarily, but just for a nice change of pace. My latest favorite is beef (any cut will do) marinated in lime juice, wheat-free tamari, and cumin. I just did a batch of bone-in short ribs like that with homemade beef broth, as a slight alteration of Richard Nikoley’s excellent short rib recipe, and it was incredible. I highly recommend it.

How do you use cumin? Have you used it? And don’t say “in curries”; I want some new stuff to try!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Garlic and cummin seeds grinded and some onion and tomatoes, a pinch of salt. Great mexican rice

    liz wrote on April 8th, 2013
  2. I use cumin in a chick pea salad. I make it with sliced or grated carrots, chopped sweet peppers, red onion, parsley, cilantro and a tsp of cumin, olive oil and lemon juice and a few drained cans of chick peas of course. We love it and have it at least once a week. The cumin gives it a very nice flavour – a very healthy and tasty salad. Friends love it too.

    Cluney wrote on April 13th, 2013
  3. I just began using cumin. Two days ago, as an alternative to hot chips from the store, I baked some mini tortillas mixed with vegetables, cumin, lime juice, salt, some oil and cayenne pepper. After eating them for a while on both days, I noticed my fingers were kind of swollen and hurt a little. I was afraid the cumin in excess amount was causing a kind of arthritis reaction in me. But after reading in this article cumin may be anti-osteoporotic, I think maybe the cumin may actually have stimulated calcium absorption (?!). Well since my bone density is low, now I’ll try taking my calcium supplements with cumin. Hopefully I’ll see some positive bone density effects!!

    Sonia wrote on May 1st, 2013
  4. Ayurveda fat burning tea I’ve been using is 1/4 Teaspoon Cumin whole seeds, 1/4 Teaspoon of Coriander whole seeds and 1/4 Teaspoon of Fennel whole seeds in 2 c of boiling water strain and put in thermos and sip during the day.
    Kulreet Chaudhary, M.D. suggested 1/2 teaspoon of those seeds in 4 cups of water but I like to just do a small batch using my 22 oz insulated Klean thermos. I can top with cold water to cool down a bit since I don’t like boiling hot drinks. Still stays pleasantly warm to sip on during the day. Lots of other different health benefits to all those ingredients especially for digestive function.

    Martha Ray Barger wrote on June 3rd, 2013
  5. Opps forgot to mention in my prior post… that the ‘fat burning’ Ayurveda tea I make with whole Cumin, Coriander and Fennel seeds is to detox.

    Martha Ray Barger wrote on June 3rd, 2013
  6. I am Latin American and use cumin often. I use it in soups, meat and salads.

    For salad use:
    -iceberg lettuce (romaine/ others will be too bitter with this recipe)
    -diced tomato
    -diced cucumber

    Now simply add salt, pepper, cumin and lime to taste. It’s awesome! And a healthier way to eat salad.

    Another way to eat it is on green mangos. Sprinkle coarse sea salt, coarse pepper and cumin on to the green mangoes and enjoy. Very tart taste, so if you like green mangoes this is for you.


    Elena wrote on June 7th, 2013
  7. I use cumin in tacos, chili, tomato soup, beef soup, homemade pasta, salads, meatballs, dinner rolls, fish, peach cobbler, cherry bounce, honey w/ginger, cinnamon & cumin is an excellent immunity strengthener among other uses. The only limits seem to be personal taste enjoyment :)

    Marsha wrote on July 15th, 2013
  8. cumin is ingredient of lyden dutch cheese. yummy. i am going to try a cumin cheese stick recipe with phylo dough and a little hot pepper i just saw.

    julie deyoung wrote on July 23rd, 2013
  9. I oven roast carrots (quartered) in coconut oil and sprinkled with turmeric and cumin and also fresh thyme leaves. Then the last 10 mins of roasting I drizzle on a little raw honey. My kids love them and eat them as an alternative to a packet of crisps (which I do NOT allow them to eat EVER!).

    LeAn wrote on September 19th, 2013
  10. Ok guys I cant believe no one ever mentioned this…
    Cut potatoes into dices , chop some onions , garlic & ginger . Heat the oil of your preference….brown the onion garlic ginger mix and then toss in the chopped potatoes..sear the potatoes while adding gracious amounts of cumin along with salt n turmeric. Cook in vegetables stock until done . Voila a healthy vegetable main course. ….

    Harry wrote on October 9th, 2013
  11. I stumbled upon cumin about 2 years ago when I started making Pozole. It’s amazing in its strong flavor. I use cumin in chili, spaghetti sauce, greens, beans and just about anything. It’s very complimentary to garlic and onions. My Pozole is my most popular dish, requested by everyone I know. I also make killer salsa and cumin is that secret ingredient that has everyone coming back for more!!

    Shana wrote on December 7th, 2013
  12. It’s part of taco seasoning (which I make myself). I don’t measure – just sprinkle all the ingredients into ground meat (delish on ground chicken and lamb). I add turmeric as well, even tho it’s not part of taco seasoning. I add lots of cumin to guacamole too.

    Sarah wrote on February 15th, 2014
  13. Definitely try cumin on rice (a small amount goes a long, long way). Also, potato/corn/cheese/green onion soup w/cumin (again, not too much) is a favorite recipe many of my friends have asked for. Will try it as others have posted. THANKS.

    cravingherbs wrote on February 18th, 2014
  14. I use cumin on my poached eggs with turmeric and fennel seeds with chia seeds mmmmm soo good.

    Theresa Noonan wrote on March 17th, 2014
  15. Every night before going to sleep, i mix and I drink in a glass of cold water these 5 herbs
    1. Turmeric powder
    2. Ginger powder
    3. Cinnamon powder
    4. Cumin powder
    5. Coriander powder
    I drink that every night and I feel incredible. I also always I eat healthy food not junk food

    Rex wrote on March 24th, 2014
  16. Has anyone ever heard of using the plant fronds as a food? Is it poisonous?

    Chuck wrote on May 13th, 2014
  17. Animanarchy wrote on June 27th, 2014
  18. Huh, thought I’d commented on this when I read it the first time. Maybe that was under another post.
    Cumin is one of my favourite spices. I agree with those above who I noticed said it goes well with eggs while I was skimming comments. I also think it goes well with fish. I like it on sardines and salmon.
    It also tastes alright in small amounts in coffee. It makes it slightly earthy.

    Animanarchy wrote on June 27th, 2014
  19. I use cumin as a dry rub for chicken and fish (cod primarily). I also use it to sauté veggies. Add cumin to your coconut oil, add veggies and sauté on medium low. Noms

    Lauren wrote on July 19th, 2014
  20. I’m on a salt free diet so always experimenting with spices to replace it. I LOVE to put cumin on popcorn. It’s wonderful, try it!

    Carol wrote on August 6th, 2014
  21. Although not a great fan of the flavor or smell I don’t cook lots of stews so I have learned to enjoy anything that is Good for me with it’s benefits so I put it in my morning oatmeal for it’s health effects and since it is fairly mild flavored I don’t notice it’s in there but I might start sprinkling it on my lunch sandwiches too, It makes you feel good that your getting something a little healthy in there too

    Joyce wrote on October 22nd, 2014
  22. I love the smell when I grind some in my mortar.

    Evde Cilt Bakımı wrote on December 26th, 2014

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2016 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!