by Rachael Link, MS, RD
With its tangy, lemon-like flavor and vibrant red hue, sumac spice is a superstar ingredient that deserves a spot in every spice cabinet. Besides adding a zip of flavor and color to dishes, this powerful spice has also been associated with an extensive set of benefits. Thanks to its rich content of polyphenols and flavonoids, adding a dash of sumac into your diet may help lower cholesterol levels, stabilize blood sugar and even reduce bone loss.
So what is sumac, and why should you start stocking up on this potent spice? Let’s take a closer look at a few of the ways that sumac spice can benefit your health.
What Is Sumac Spice?
Sumac refers to any flowering plant that belongs to the Rhus genus or the Anacardiaceae family, which often consist of small shrubs and sumac trees that produce bright red fruits known as drupes. These plants are grown around the world but are especially common in East Asia, Africa and North America. Some other popular variations include the staghorn sumac, African sumac, smooth sumac and fragrant sumac.
Sumac spice, however, is derived from the dried and ground berries of a specific type of sumac plant, Rhus coriaria. This bright and flavorful spice is often added to other spice blends, including za’atar. It’s also a common ingredient in traditional Middle Eastern cuisine and is used in everything from meat dishes to salads.
So what does sumac taste like? Sumac has a unique taste typically described as tangy and slightly fruity, a bit like lemon. But in addition to bringing a distinct taste to dishes, it also boasts a long list of impressive benefits. In fact, recent research suggests that sumac could have a powerful effect on blood sugar control, heart health, disease prevention and even pain relief.
Benefits of Sumac Spice
- Regulates Blood Sugar
- Reduces Cholesterol
- High in Disease-Fighting Antioxidants
- May Reduce Bone Loss
- Relieves Muscle Pain
1. Regulates Blood Sugar
High blood sugar can take a real toll on many aspects of health. In the short term, it can cause symptoms like fatigue, headaches, frequent urination and increased thirst. Over time, sustaining high levels of blood sugar has even more serious consequences, including nerve damage, kidney problems and impaired wound healing.
Some research shows that sumac may help maintain normal blood sugar levels. In one study, 41 people with diabetes were given either three grams of sumac spice or a placebo daily for a three-month period. At the end of the study, sumac spice was found to decrease blood sugar levels by 13 percent and even led to an improvement in overall blood sugar control. (1)
Plus, it may also help prevent insulin resistance. Insulin is the hormone responsible for transporting sugar from the bloodstream to the tissues, so when blood sugar levels are consistently high, insulin levels remain spiked. This causes the body to become resistant to its effects, resulting in impaired blood sugar control. According to a study published in the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, sumac spice may be effective at lowering insulin levels to prevent insulin resistance and stabilize blood sugar. (2)
2. Reduces Cholesterol
High cholesterol is one of the biggest risk factors for heart disease. Cholesterol can build up inside the arteries, causing them to narrow and harden, placing strain on the heart muscle and making it harder to push blood through.
Although research is currently mostly limited to animal models, studies suggest that sumac benefits heart health by lowering cholesterol to reduce the risk of heart disease. According to a study conducted by the Tehran University of Medical Sciences in Iran, sumac was able to reduce both triglyceride and cholesterol levels in rats fed a high-cholesterol diet. (3) Another study had similar findings, showing that administering a combination of sumac and ginger to hens caused a significant decrease in cholesterol levels. (4)
3. High in Disease-Fighting Antioxidants
Antioxidants are powerful compounds that help fight free radicals to prevent cell damage and protect against chronic disease. Some research even suggests that antioxidants may reduce the risk of serious conditions like heart disease, diabetes and cancer. (5)
Sumac is a concentrated source of antioxidants, which can help neutralize free radicals and keep your body healthy. (6) In fact, one 2015 animal model showed that sumac was effective at reducing diabetes complications in rats, largely thanks to its antioxidant content. (7)
4. May Reduce Bone Loss
Osteoporosis is a common condition characterized by weak, brittle bones caused by bone loss and an increased risk of fracture. The risk of osteoporosis steadily increases with age, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 25 percent of women over 65 have osteoporosis in the femur, neck and lumbar spine. (8)
Although research is still very limited on the potential effects of sumac on bone health, one study did find some promising results. A 2015 animal study published in the Journal of Applied Oral Science showed that administering sumac extract to rats altered the balance of several specific proteins involved in bone metabolism, resulting in decreased bone loss. (9)
5. Relieves Muscle Pain
If you suffer from chronic muscle aches and pain, switching up your spice cabinet may be able to help. In fact, one study showed that sumac juice, derived from the same plant as sumac spice, was able to help reduce muscle pain during aerobic exercise in healthy adults. (10)
Because of its rich antioxidant content, it may also aid in reducing inflammation to provide even more pain relief. Not only does inflammation contribute to disease development and play a central role in several autoimmune conditions, but studies also show that inflammation may be involved in pain regulation as well. (11)
Sumac Spice Nutrition and Natural Medicine Uses
Like other healing herbs and spices, sumac spice is low in calories but high in vitamin C and provides a burst of important antioxidants to help fight disease and optimize health. In particular, sumac is high in polyphenols and flavonoids, such as gallic acid, methyl gallate, kaempferol and quercetin. It also contains tannins, which act as antioxidants and may even have anticancer properties as well.
The medicinal properties of sumac have been recognized for thousands of years, particularly in regions like South Asia and the Middle East, where sumac was commonly grown. In holistic medicine, it has been used to treat a variety of ailments, ranging from asthma to diarrhea and colds. The fruit is also sometimes used as a natural diuretic to help promote proper elimination and detoxification.
Sumac Spice vs. Poison Sumac
Poison sumac, sometimes also called thunderwood, is a type woody shrub that belongs to the same family of plants as poison ivy. Although it shares the same name as sumac spice, the two belong to different plant genera and share very few similarities.
Unlike sumac spice, poison sumac is not edible and can actually be extremely dangerous to health. The plant contains a compound called urushiol, which can irritate the skin and mucus membranes, causing a poison sumac rash. When the leaves are burned, the compound can even enter the lungs, causing pain and difficulty breathing, which can even be fatal. Sumac spice, on the other hand, has not been associated with significant side effects and can be safely consumed by most people.
Sumac Spice vs. Turmeric
Both sumac spice and turmeric are powerful spices that can have a powerful effect on health. Turmeric contains a compound called curcumin, which contains anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and boasts a similar set of benefits to sumac spice. Both are also bright and flavorful, perfect for adding a bit of zing to your favorite dishes.
The sumac taste is very distinct, though, and quite different from turmeric. Turmeric has a bitter, slightly pungent flavor that works well with most dishes. Sumac, on the other hand, is more tangy and lemony, which is why lemon zest mixed with black pepper is often used as a sumac spice substitute.
Ideally, add both to your spice cabinet to bring a good mix of flavor and health benefits into your diet and take advantage of what each has to offer.
Where to Find and How to Use Sumac Spice
Wondering where to buy sumac spice? It can usually be found in the spice section of many grocery stores and is also common in specialty Middle Eastern markets. If you’re having trouble, you can also find it online, sometimes at an even lower price.
If you’re able to get your hands on some sumac berries, you could also try making it at home. There are plenty of tutorials online for how to make sumac spice, but it generally involves simply drying and coarsely grinding the berries into a spice and then enjoying in your favorite recipes.
So how do you start adding sumac to your diet to reap all of the delicious benefits that it has to offer? This versatile spice can be used in everything from dressings to marinades. It’s a staple ingredient in fattoush salad and also goes well with grilled meat and fish. You can also add a sprinkle of sumac over cooked vegetables or side dishes for a dash of extra color and flavor.
Sumac Spice Recipes
Need some new sumac food ideas to add into your routine? Here are a few simple yet delicious recipes that incorporate sumac spice to help you get your fix:
- Chickpea Salad
- Roasted Chicken with Sumac and Lemons
- Lebanese Fattoush Salad
- Squash Toast with Feta, Sumac and Poached Egg
- Persian Lentil Soup
The sumac plant, which is native to South Asia and the Middle East, is known for its vibrant red berries, also called drupes. These berries become fully ripe in the fall but gradually develop a darker red hue in the winter and are an important source of nutrition for wildlife when food becomes scarce.
Historically, sumac has been used for thousands of years to boost the flavor and color of dishes. It was also used medicinally and brewed into a tea to promote breast milk production, soothe sore throats and relieve gastrointestinal issues.
Today, it remains an important part of Turkish, Syrian and Lebanese recipes and is also used in certain spice blends, such as za’atar. As it grows in popularity, it’s becoming more common in other types of cuisine as well and can be used in everything from soups to salads and beyond.
Keep in mind that sumac spice is different from poison sumac, a plant that is closely related to poison ivy. Poison sumac contains a compound called urushiol, which can irritate the skin and cause serious side effects that may even be fatal. Sumac spice, on the other hand, belongs to a different genus of plants and can be consumed safely by most people.
Adverse side effects of sumac spice consumption are very rare but possible. It also belongs to the same family of plants as cashews and mango, so you may want to consult with your doctor before trying sumac spice if you have a food allergy to either of these ingredients. If you experience any negative symptoms like itching, swelling or hives after eating sumac, discontinue use and talk to a trusted health care practitioner.
If you take any medications to help lower blood sugar or cholesterol levels, be sure to keep your intake in moderation and consider discussing with your doctor. Since sumac spice has been shown to decrease blood sugar and reduce cholesterol, it may interact with these medications.
- What is sumac? This powerful spice is made from the dried and ground berries of Rhus coriaria and is a common ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine.
- Sumac has a tangy, slightly fruity flavor that works well with meat and fish dishes, which is why a combination of lemon juice and black pepper is often used as a sumac substitute in some recipes.
- Because of its rich antioxidant content, potential sumac spice health benefits include decreased cholesterol levels, lower blood sugar, reduced bone loss and relief from muscle pain.
- Try adding sumac spice to salads, marinades, roasted vegetables and meat dishes to take advantage of its unique taste and the health benefits that it has to offer.
The post Sumac Spice: The Heart-Healthy, Bone-Supporting Antioxidant Herb appeared first on Dr. Axe.