Medically review by Kim Langdon
In this ingredient highlight article, we're talking about a lesser known - and quite frankly, underrated - seed!
We all know about chia seeds and see them all over the place.
This spice can be used in your cooking as well as a raw supplement making it powerful, versatile, and easy to add to your diet which we love.
It's a powerful anti-inflammatory food, libido booster, and digestion enhancer - its benefits are all over the place, and truly for everyone regardless of what you're struggling with.
If you're curious, stick around to learn about the origin of this spice, how you can use it, and what you can expect!
What is fenugreek?
Fenugreek comes from the Fabaceae plant family which is known as a legume, pea, or bean. Fenugreek means Greek hay.
?While it may look like a seed at first, it's technically considered a legume.
It's thought to have first been cultivated in the Near East, and it's been in use for centuries now.
In the first century A.D., the Romans were using the stuff to add flavor to their wine. It was a relatively common food staple in Galilee.
If you're familiar with fenugreek now, you might know it from South Asian or Indian cuisine.
You may have some hiding out in your spice cabinet too, either in dried form or its seed form (pictured above).
It's actually used in a variety of different ways across the world, but most commonly used to flavor pickles, spice up vegetable-based dishes, flavor dal (an Indian lentil dish), or as a tasty and healthy addition to unique spice blends.
In India, you're most likely to find fenugreek in your curry while in Turkey, it's often incorporated into a spicy paste with black pepper and cumin which is then used in many traditional recipes.
Per tablespoon of fenugreek, here is the nutritional breakdown:
- Calories: 36
- Fat: 0.7 grams
- Protein: 2.6 gram
- Carbohydrates: 6 grams
- Dietary fiber: 2.7 grams
- Potassium: 85 milligrams (2% DV)
- Iron: 20% DV
- Vitamin B6: 5% DV
- Calcium: 2% DV
- Magnesium: 5% DV
Yes - these numbers are rather small across the boards, but that's the point here: fenugreek packs some power in a very small package, backing up its superfood reputation.
It's fibrous, full of iron which can be pretty tough to get and provides a few other essential vitamins and minerals at the same time.
They taste a bit sweet like maple syrup with bitter and burnt notes that disappear when cooked which produces a much more desirable flavor.
8 benefits of fenugreek
Fenugreek is an awesome ingredient to add to your repertoire for a little (or big) health boost.
Like many plants, it's chock full of awesome benefits containing antioxidants and other healthful constituents, plus a variety of different culinary uses.
In addition to adding fenugreek to food, it's rather easy to find in supplement form so you can simply add it to your morning vitamin routine if you're not too keen on the flavor.
It may reduce biomarkers in diabetic people.
While the research is still debatable, there is evidence to show that fenugreek consumption can reduce biomarkers (or indicators) in diabetic individuals and pre-diabetic individuals.
Perhaps it's due to this food's ability to reduce blood sugar - one of the most prominent biomarkers for people who deal with type 2 diabetes.
In this study, it significantly reduced both fasting and post-meal blood sugar.
This is because fenugreek is thought to slow down the pace at which sugars are absorbed by the bod, leading to a steady and stable rise and fall in blood sugar.
This could make fenugreek a great spice to pair with starchy foods like rice and potatoes (hello, curry!).
It can lower cholesterol.
High cholesterol is a problem for many people.
While a real food diet in addition to weight loss can address the issue for many, it's important to include new foods and natural remedies that help to naturally manage cholesterol levels.
Fenugreek is definitely one of those foods! Fenugreek is shown to reduce LDL cholesterol levels while keeping HDL cholesterol levels the same which is the ideal situation and balance.
Fenugreek is a fantastic addition to any heart-healthy diet designed for optimal cardiovascular health.
Fenugreek can help to manage both internal and external inflammation.
You may even notice fenugreek as an ingredient in topical ointments and applications.
It can be used in pastes and salves to treat skin irritation(s) such as gout, dandruff, eczema breakouts, general dry/flaking skin, swollen muscles, and even swollen lymph nodes. Its anti-inflammatory properties are also potent when orally ingested.
Most notably, it addresses inflammation in the intestines and bowels for reduced cramping, bloating, and overall irritation.
This makes it a good supplement for people with ulcerative colitis or IBS.
It can stimulate the appetite.
While this may not be ideal for folks who want to lose weight, it can be incredibly effective in keeping chronically ill people fed as well as helping individuals recover from anorexia or other restrictive eating disorders.
Don't let this put you off from supplementing with fenugreek, though!
It works in this way because it enhances flavor and makes food more appealing, so it could be the key to your culinary prowess just as well.
This animal study shows that fenugreek administration increases appetite and motivation to eat.
While it cannot be used as a preventative measure for anorexia, it is a simple and non-invasive addition to treatment that could prove to be very effective.
It has the potential to boost athletic performance.
Combined with creatine, fenugreek can help you get after those gains in the gym!
There isn't a lot of research, but there is one study that looked at the combination of creatine and fenugreek extract with individuals who were doing regular resistance training.
In the end, there was a significant impact on upper body strength in addition to positive changes in body composition.
The overall conclusion is that fenugreek extract can enhance the effects of creatine.
It can increase testosterone production.
Not everyone needs a testosterone boost, but it can be beneficial for a few reasons.
First, it increases libido. Men who suffer from low libido or erectile dysfunction may find that supplementing regularly with fenugreek is a non-invasive way to get the blood flowing in the right direction again.
Moreover, extra testosterone could help treat some forms of hair loss and other commonly burdensome ailments.
Considering how few/rare side effects are, fenugreek may be the way to go with these things!
It can be used to improve digestion.
Digestion is a great marker of overall health, so improving it and keeping things regular should be a priority for anyone who would like to achieve optimal health.
Fenugreek can help to treat constipation and get things moving, decrease bloating, and address inflammation as I mentioned above.
These properties are likely linked to the water-soluble fiber content of fenugreek which acts as a mild laxative.
It may help to increase the supply of breast milk.
Many new mothers have high hopes for breastfeeding but end up not producing enough to nourish their newborns.
Diet can play a significant role in breast milk production, and fenugreek - which acts as a galactagogue - could be the missing link in producing enough breast milk.
Some people may actually see benefits within 1-2 days, but should supplement for around 2-3 weeks to see noticeable changes.
The recommended dosage for increasing breast milk supply is around 3,500 milligrams per day.
It is important to talk with your doctor about plans to use a galactagogue like fenugreek or milk thistle first, as there isn't much research on the efficacy or safety surrounding this natural remedy.
You should experiment with a dose that suits you and your needs first and consider any safety precautions or warnings.
It is also important to be knowledgeable about the side effects (which we will discuss later).
How to use fenugreek
Use it as a spice.
Fenugreek can be found dried for use in dishes like curry and dal.
You can also use it to spice roasted vegetables or blend it with other spices to create unique spice blends to cook with.
Fenugreek - like most other spices - contains lots of antioxidants!
It has a strong flavor, so be sure to check out some suggestions and use modest amounts.
Sprouting foods often reduces or rids it of negative and unwanted properties like anti-nutrients and phytic acid.
Because fenugreek is technically a legume, sprouting it can really increase its nutritive properties.
In fact, sprouting before consumption can boost nutrition by 30-40%, making it much more bioavailable for your body to use.
Supplement with fenugreek.
There are a few supplemental ways in which you can use fenugreek.
For example, you can consume a spoonful of soaked fenugreek seeds on an empty stomach as a natural antacid (due to its anti-inflammatory properties).
Consume roughly a teaspoon for digestion first thing in the morning.
Make a paste with it.
After soaking seeds, you can make a paste with it by blending it with other ingredients.
Pastes are great for adding lots of flavor to curries, stir-fries, and any other recipes with a sauce.
They tend to really concentrate the flavors of different spices which can help you add loads of umami (and health benefits) to your cooking.
Side effects & warnings for fenugreek
One of the most notable and non-invasive side effects of fenugreek consumption is that you might begin to smell like maple syrup.
While it may put you off a little bit, it's a generally pleasant scent.
You might notice this in urine or sweat, or even with your baby if you're using fenugreek to increase your milk supply!
Don't worry too much. Otherwise, there are a few things to watch out for.
Like with any natural herbal remedy, there isn't a lot of regulation from agencies like the FDA, so it's our duty to share with you common issues to watch out for.
Just because it's natural doesn't mean it's 100% safe. Everything has its caveats!
- It is not necessarily safe for children. Children can eat foods containing normal amounts of fenugreek, but it should not be used as a supplement, nor should children drink fenugreek tea. While there is not much conclusive research, this is one instance where you're better off safe than sorry.
- You may be allergic to fenugreek. Like with many foods, you should be aware of an allergic reaction with fenugreek. Allergy is more common amongst individuals who are also allergic to peanuts and/or chickpeas.
- There may be digestive side effects. Most notably, diarrhea, bloating, and gas. While fenugreek can improve digestion, too much of it can cause an upset stomach.
- It may cause hypoglycemia. In people with diabetes, it can cause a hypoglycaemic response.
- Fenugreek has negative drug interactions. Before beginning any supplement, it is important to check for drug interactions. Fenugreek may interfere with diabetes medication. Due to its constituent coumarin, it can also interfere with anticoagulants and antiplatelet drugs.
- It is not recommended for pregnant women. In small amounts (i.e. in food), fenugreek isn't generally an issue for pregnant women. It can, however, cause uterine contractions in excess, and is even thought to induce labor sometimes. Because of its interactions with hormones, it is best to avoid any potentially dangerous interactions when it comes to you and your baby.
And that's all for our ingredient highlight on fabulous fenugreek! This spice has been used in folk medicine for diabetes and constipation for many years, and it's tasty to eat in curries and spicy pastes.
We hope you learned a few new things today and are excited to include more fenugreek in your diet to reap its benefits.
This article was fact checked for accuracy by Dr. Kim Langdon, MD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
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Kimberly Langdon M.D. is a retired University-trained obstetrician/gynecologist with 19-years of clinical experience. She delivered over 2000 babies to mothers in a suburban Midwestern community.