Fenugreek, a common ingredient in Indian cuisine, is rich in polyphenols, compounds that have a potential to fine-tune biochemical pathways that go awry in some diseases.

During a recent trip to India to visit family and friends after more than a year of communicating only electronically, I had a chance to see how, and to what extent, their lives had changed since I last saw them. FaceTime, WhatsApp, and email don’t hold a candle to being in the same space and watching routines unfold through the course of a day. For example, I learnt that at the suggestion of a friend, my brother was now consuming fenugreek seeds that had been soaked overnight, to enhance his metabolic profile and overall wellness. This piqued my scientific curiosity particularly because his efforts have met with some success, and I set about to try to understand what the soaked fenugreek seeds might be doing, upon consumption.

An ancient spice

Carbon dating of charred fenugreek seeds found in ancient Iraq suggests that the plant was used in 4000 BC. Desiccated seeds have also been recovered from the tomb of Tutankhamen. According to some texts, the Romans used fenugreek to flavor wine. In short, fenugreek has been around for quite some time.

The stippled red area on the map is roughly where charred fenugreek seeds were found

Today, the major fenugreek-producing countries are Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Iran, Nepal, Bangladesh, Argentina, Egypt, France, Spain, Turkey, and Morocco. The largest producer is India, and perhaps the largest consumer too.

Fenugreek plant

Although used as a spice, fenugreek belongs to the Fabaceae family, commonly known as the legume family, that includes a variety of beans, lentils and peas. In India alone there are at least ten names for the plant, reflecting the diversity of the country; probably the most common name is “methi”. Both the seeds and the greens of the fenugreek plant are used in a panoply of recipes in almost all the regional cuisines of India — there are more than thirty types of regional cuisines once again reflecting the diversity of the country.

The tiny brown seeds, only slightly larger than a mustard seed, are very hard and difficult to grind. They have a distinct flavor and aroma, and the extract of the seed is used in imitation vanilla, butterscotch, and rum flavoring. Many imitation maple syrups use fenugreek as a flavoring element.

As a legume, dry fenugreek seeds contain the same percent of protein as lentils: in both cases, 100 g of the dried seeds contain almost 25 g protein. Among other important constituents of fenugreek are fiber, polyphenols and saponins.

What’s a polyphenol?

The widely advertised antioxidant role attributed to green tea is a consequence of the high polyphenol content in the dried leaves. Polyphenols are a group of compounds that have one basic common feature — they all contain phenol rings; these rings are linked in complex lattice forms, and sometimes modified, resulting in more than 300 known polyphenols. Examples of polyphenols include tannin (or tannic acid) found in tea; anthocyanins (this is what gives leaves the red color seen in autumn); and flavanols (found in grapes) — all of these have antioxidant properties.

Phenol (left), tannic acid (center), flavanol (right) — figures not to scale (courtesy Wikipedia)

The outermost layer of the fenugreek seed, the husk, is rich in polyphenols. Two polyphenols extracted from the husk have exhibited antioxidant activity in animal studies. Both compounds are only partially soluble in water.

What’s a saponin?

Saponins are naturally occurring molecules in many plants. As the name suggests, saponins are molecules that create a froth when shaken in water, not unlike a soap solution. They protect plants from infections and predators. Some saponins are poisonous to animals. A high intake of nontoxic saponins can also have deleterious effects, leading to significant gastrointestinal discomfort. Based on studies on laboratory animals, consuming small amounts of saponin can reduce blood cholesterol and blood glucose levels.

A saponin found in potato plants

In the fenugreek plant, saponins while present in small amounts in the outer coat, are more abundant inside the seed. Germinating the seeds releases the saponins from the interior.

Fenugreek seeds and health*

A few epidemiological studies have correlated consumption of fenugreek seeds with a reduction in cholesterol, and in glucose in type 2 diabetes. Typically, about 10–12 grams of fenugreek seeds (3 tsps) appear to do the trick. Germinating the seeds enhances these effects; a minimal soaking of them overnight without germination also appears to be helpful (germination takes at least 5 days). Overnight soaking/germination also enhances the antioxidant properties of fenugreek seeds. If 10–12 grams of seeds are consumed without overnight soaking (unsoaked seeds would need to be powdered for consumption), the likelihood of flatulence and other digestive problems is significant: the complex fiber composition of the unsoaked/ungerminated seed is largely indigestible and acts as fodder for natural intestinal flora!

In most instances, when fenugreek is use as a spice, barely 5–10 seeds are used in a recipe, so any specific health gains would be limited. Fenugreek leaves in salads, and as a vegetable helping would be slightly more beneficial than a dish cooked with a few seeds. However, the leaves are quite bitter and relishing them is an acquired taste.

What I learnt in my winter vacation

While electronic communication has its benefits and its place in today’s society, it is simply a placeholder for in-person communication. Had I not spent time with my brother, I probably wouldn’t have looked at a spice that I routinely use in my cooking, with the attention I have since my winter vacation. Currently available peer reviewed data on fenugreek’s health benefits is relatively limited, but the findings are certainly promising, and worthy of further research. With fenugreek being easily available and inexpensive, it probably wouldn’t hurt to soak a few teaspoons each night and eat the softened seeds the next morning — better yet, germinate them regularly and they’ll likely be even more palatable and effective.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the effects of dietary components (in this case fenugreek) while attributable to some constituents (in this case polyphenols, fiber, and saponins), can only be fully confirmed when the constituents are tested in isolation. More importantly, the effect of an isolated constituent may not mirror the effect of that constituent in the context of the dietary component, illustrating the complexity of biology and biochemistry.

*Information in this article is just that, information. It does not supplant any advice provided by a medical professional.

Originally published at medium.com