A close relative to cumin and fennel, caraway seeds serve as an aromatic spice with a variety of health benefits. To learn about the medicinal and culinary uses of caraway, read on.
Where Do Caraway Seeds Come From?
The caraway plant (Carum carvi) is from the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae family (aka the carrot family) of mostly aromatic flowering plants, along with cumin and fennel. With feathery leaves and clusters of flowers, caraway seeds are used for flavor in many European and Mediterranean dishes, and also have medicinal properties.
Native to western Asia, North Africa, and Europe, caraway seeds have been used in traditional medicine to kill pathogens, ease flatulence, boost memory, regulate diabetes and blood pressure (hypertension), and even help with breast milk production. The essential oils in caraway seeds are full of powerful phytochemicals like hydrocarbons, flavonoids, polysaccharides, lignins, and so much more, each known to positively impact human health.
The Top 5 Health Benefits of Caraway Seeds
If you’re wondering what do caraway seeds taste like, they have a mild anise flavor that many people describe as licorice-like in flavor. Earthy, with a hint of pepper and citrus, they are highly aromatic and bring an extra layer to any dish they’re added to. Frequently found in seeded rye bread, they also add dimension to salads, German cabbage dishes like sauerkrauts and coleslaws, savory tarts, British seed cakes, Irish soda breads, and more. Great for flavoring, caraway seeds are far more impressive for what they can do for your health, including the following scientifically backed benefits.
1. Diabetes Management
The anti-diabetic effects of caraway seeds come from flavonoid substances like thymol, carveol, carvone, and limonene. This 2011 review of studies reports that caraway oil has a proven lipid-lowering impact in diabetic humans. Caraway oil has also shown a hypoglycemic effect in rats, which indicates it may help improve glucose usage and insulin sensitivity.
2. Digestive Health
Caraway seeds have a proven carminative influence, meaning they can help clear out gas, bloating, and flatulence. Traditional medicine has utilized caraway seed to treat dyspepsia (indigestion), and scientific study has confirmed that use in several ways.
The same above-linked review of studies showed instances in which caraway oil was found to be antispasmodic (relaxing stomach muscles and discouraging spasms) and antimicrobial (particularly in reference to Helicobacter pylori, bacteria associated with gastric cancers, gastritis, and other gastrointestinal disorders). Moreover, caraway seeds have an antioxidant influence thanks to their flavonoids, which helps protect against free radical damage in the body, including in the areas of gastric and peptic ulcers.
3. Colon Protection
Piggybacking off the digestive aid aspect of caraway seeds, they also work to protect the colon from the effects of inflammation and possibly even the development of colon cancer. Anti-colitic, caraway seeds inhibit the production of pro-inflammatories like interleukins, cytokines, leukotrienes, and prostaglandins. In so doing, caraway seeds help to reduce the amount of lesions in the colon, which indicates anti-cancer potential.
4. Weight-Loss Aid
The polyphenols in caraway seeds may help promote healthy weight loss by improving the gut’s microflora and enabling better nutrient absorption during digestion.
More contributions to caraway’s anti-obesity impact come from its unsaturated fatty acid profile, which helps enhance the rate of lipid metabolism and improve the chances of body fat loss. Also the antioxidant activity of the compounds in caraway oil empower the gut to prevent fat accumulation and kill off new adipocytes (fat storage cells) before they can fully mature.
5. Neuroprotective Powers
Caraway seed extract and essential oils have been found to produce an anticonvulsant effect, most particularly the compound carvone, which is the active ingredient for producing antiepileptic results. Caraway essential oils outperformed other extracts in their ability to control seizures, and on top of that the other biochemicals in caraway provide a neuroprotective effect.
Terpenoids especially help to act as an anti-inflammatory, an antioxidant, and a modulator of neurotransmitter systems, including sodium channels and the influx of calcium. There is scientific speculation that caraway seeds and oils may aid in slowing down age-related mental deterioration.
Caraway Facts and FAQs
This savory spice can be found in foods as far flung as Asian, Indian, African, Mediterranean, German, and Scandinavian cuisines. Many cultures use caraway seeds for their flavor profile, but there’s so much more to them than that.
- Caraway seeds can help increase the bioavailability of certain antibacterial drugs.
- Caraway oil has been shown to have antimicrobial abilities in the face of over 15 pathogenic, fungal, and protozoal strains of bacteria, including Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Vibrio cholera, and Salmonella typhi.
- Though they’re part of the same species, the difference between caraway seeds and cumin is real: specifically, cumin is spicier, while caraway seeds have a more anise-like taste and unique crescent-shaped appearance. However, they both have positive health effects.
- Caraway seeds can be interchanged in recipes with aniseed, dill seeds, fennel seeds, nigella seeds, and star anise.
If you want to try cooking with caraway, here are three recipes to get started.
This rich, hardy soup recipe by Chris Honor and Laura Washburn Hutton at The Splendid Table combines potatoes, mushrooms, hard-boiled eggs, heavy cream, flour, pepper, vinegar, and, of course, caraway seeds for a comforting, creamy soup guaranteed to satisfy.
This traditional bread recipe from A Taste of Home combines brown sugar and caraway seeds, and provides a classic European rye bread recipe that can be used for sandwiches or eaten unadorned to enjoy the caraway flavoring.
This recipe from the BBC walks you through how to cook cabbage to perfection and features olive oil, chopped onion, and caraway seeds to enhance the flavor profile of a classic dish.
Get Carried Away with Caraway
Full of dietary fiber, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin A, vitamin C, and unsaturated fatty acids, caraway seeds and oils are rich in biochemical tools to improve your health. Used traditionally in various recipes and in medicinal arenas, caraway seeds are antimicrobial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, and neuroprotective. Try them today to get both the health benefits and flavorful nutrients in one simple sprinkle of seeds.