Cumin is a spice made from the seeds of the Cuminum cyminum plant.
Many dishes use cumin, especially foods from its native regions of the Mediterranean and Southwest Asia.
Cumin lends its distinctive flavor to chili, tamales and various Indian curries. Its flavor has been described as earthy, nutty, spicy and warm.
What's more, cumin has long been used in traditional medicine.
Modern studies have confirmed some of the health benefits cumin is traditionally known for, including promoting digestion and reducing food-borne infections.
Research has also revealed some new benefits, such as promoting weight loss and improving blood sugar control and cholesterol.
This article will review nine evidence-based health benefits of cumin.
1. Promotes Digestion
The most common traditional use of cumin is for indigestion.
In fact, modern research has confirmed cumin may help rev up normal digestion ().
For example, it may increase the activity of digestive enzymes, potentially speeding up digestion ().
Cumin also increases the release of bile from the liver. Bile helps digest fats and certain nutrients in your gut ().
In one study, 57 patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) reported improved symptoms after taking concentrated cumin for two weeks ().
Summary: Cumin aids digestion by increasing the activity of digestive proteins. It may also reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
2. Is a Rich Source of Iron
Cumin seeds are naturally rich in iron ().
One teaspoon of ground cumin contains 1.4 mg of iron, or 17.5% of the RDI for adults ().
Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies, affecting up to 20% of the world's population and up to 10 in 1,000 people in the wealthiest nations (, ).
In particular, children need iron to support growth and young women need iron to replace blood lost during menstruation ().
Few foods are as iron-dense as cumin. This makes it a good iron source, even when used in small amounts as a seasoning.
Summary: Many people around the world don't get enough iron. Cumin is very dense in iron, providing almost 20% of your daily iron in one teaspoon.
3. Contains Beneficial Plant Compounds
Cumin contains lots of plant compounds that are linked with potential health benefits, including terpenes, phenols, flavonoids and alkaloids (, , , ).
Several of these function as antioxidants, which are chemicals that reduce damage to your body from free radicals ().
Free radicals are basically lonely electrons. Electrons like being in pairs and when they split up, they become unstable.
These lone, or "free" electrons steal other electron partners away from other chemicals in your body. This process is called "oxidation."
The oxidation of fatty acids in your arteries leads to clogged arteries and heart disease. Oxidation also leads to inflammation in diabetes, and the oxidation of DNA can contribute to cancer ().
Antioxidants like those in cumin give an electron to a lonely free radical electron, making it more stable ().
Cumin's antioxidants likely explain some of its health benefits ().
Summary: Free radicals are lone electrons that cause inflammation and damage DNA. Cumin contains antioxidants that stabilize free radicals.
4. May Help With Diabetes
Some of cumin's components have shown promise helping to treat diabetes.
One clinical study showed a concentrated cumin supplement improved early indicators of diabetes in overweight individuals, compared to a placebo ().
Cumin also contains components that counter some of the long-term effects of diabetes.
One of the ways diabetes harms cells in the body is through advanced glycation end products (AGEs) ().
They're produced spontaneously in the bloodstream when blood sugar levels are high over long periods of time, as they are in diabetes. AGEs are created when sugars attach to proteins and disrupt their normal function.
AGEs are likely responsible for damage to eyes, kidneys, nerves and small blood vessels in diabetes ().
Cumin contains several components that reduce AGEs, at least in test-tube studies ().
While these studies tested the effects of concentrated cumin supplements, routinely using cumin as a seasoning may help control blood sugar in diabetes (, ).
It is not yet clear what is responsible for these effects, or how much cumin is needed to cause benefits.
Summary: Cumin supplements may help improve blood sugar control, though it is not clear what causes this effect or how much is needed.
5. May Improve Blood Cholesterol
Cumin has also improved blood cholesterol in clinical studies.
In one study, 75 mg of cumin taken twice daily for eight weeks decreased unhealthy blood triglycerides ().
In another study, levels of oxidized "bad" LDL cholesterol were decreased by nearly 10% in patients taking cumin extract over one and a half months ().
One study of 88 women looked at whether cumin affected levels of "good" HDL cholesterol. Those who took 3 grams of cumin with yogurt twice a day for three months had higher levels of HDL than those who ate yogurt without it ().
It is not known if cumin used as seasoning in the diet has the same blood cholesterol benefits as the supplements used in these studies.
Also, not all studies agree on this effect. One study found no changes in blood cholesterol in participants who took a cumin supplement ().
Summary: Cumin supplements have improved blood cholesterol in multiple studies. It is unclear if using cumin in small amounts as a seasoning has the same benefits.
6. May Promote Weight Loss and Fat Reduction
Concentrated cumin supplements have helped promote weight loss in a few clinical studies.
One study of 88 overweight women found that yogurt containing 3 grams of cumin promoted weight loss, compared to yogurt without it ().
Another study showed that participants who took 75 mg of cumin supplements every day lost 3 pounds (1.4 kg) more than those who took a placebo ().
A third clinical study looked at the effects of a concentrated cumin supplement in 78 adult men and women. Those who took the supplement lost 2.2 pounds (1 kg) more over eight weeks than those who did not ().
Again, not all studies agree. One study that used a smaller dose of 25 mg per day did not see any change in body weight, compared to a placebo (, ).
Summary: Concentrated cumin supplements have promoted weight loss in multiple studies. Not all studies have shown this benefit and higher doses may be required for weight loss.
7. May Prevent Food-Borne Illnesses
One of cumin's traditional roles in seasoning may have been for food safety.
Many seasonings, including cumin, appear to have antimicrobial properties that may reduce the risk of food-borne infections ().
Several components of cumin reduce the growth of food-borne bacteria and certain kinds of infectious fungi (, ).
When digested, cumin releases a component called megalomicin, which has antibiotic properties ().
Additionally, a test-tube study showed that cumin reduces the drug resistance of certain bacteria ().
Summary: Cumin's traditional use as a seasoning may restrict the growth of infectious bacteria and fungi. This may reduce food-borne illnesses.
8. May Help With Drug Dependence
Narcotic dependence is a growing concern internationally.
Opioid narcotics create addiction by hijacking the normal sense of craving and reward in the brain. This leads to continued or increased use.
Studies in mice have shown that cumin components reduce addictive behavior and withdrawal symptoms ().
However, much more research is needed to determine whether this effect would be useful in humans.
The next steps include finding the specific ingredient that caused this effect and testing whether it works in humans ().
Summary: Cumin extracts reduce signs of narcotic addiction in mice. It is not yet known if they would have similar effects in humans.
9. May Fight Inflammation
Test-tube studies have shown cumin extracts inhibit inflammation ().
There are several components of cumin that may have anti-inflammatory effects, but researchers don't yet know which are most important (, , , ).
Plant compounds in several spices have been shown to reduce levels of a key inflammation marker, NF-kappaB ().
There is not enough information right now to know whether cumin in the diet or cumin supplements are useful in treating inflammatory diseases.
Summary: Cumin contains multiple plant compounds that decrease inflammation in test-tube studies. It is not clear if it can be used to help treat inflammatory diseases in people.
Should You Use Cumin?
You can get some of cumin's benefits just by using small amounts to season food.
These quantities will provide antioxidants, iron and potential benefits for controlling blood sugar.
Other, more experimental benefits — such as weight loss and improved blood cholesterol — may require a higher dose, probably in supplement form.
Multiple studies have tested cumin supplements of up to 1 gram (about 1 teaspoon) without their participants reporting problems. However, severe allergic reactions to cumin have been reported, but are very rare ().
That said, be cautious when taking any supplement that contains much more cumin than you could possibly consume in food.
Just as with any ingredient, your body may not be equipped to process doses it would not normally experience in the diet.
If you decide to try supplements, let your doctor know what you're taking and use the supplements to complement, not replace, medical treatments.
Summary: You can get many of cumin's benefits just by using small amounts as seasoning. Other benefits may only be available at supplemental doses.
The Bottom Line
Cumin has many evidence-based health benefits. Some of these have been known since ancient times, while others are only just being discovered.
Using cumin as a spice increases antioxidant intake, promotes digestion, provides iron, may improve blood sugar control and may reduce food-borne illnesses.
Taking higher doses in supplement form has been linked to weight loss and improved blood cholesterol, though more research is needed.
I personally prefer to use cumin in cooking rather than as a supplement. This way, I take advantage of the 10th benefit of cumin — it's delicious.