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Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) belongs to the family Fabaceae. Fenugreek is used both as an herb (the leaves) and as a spice (the seed). It is cultivated worldwide as a semi-arid crop.
The name fenugreek or foenum-graecum is from Latin for "Greek hay". Zohary and Hopf note that it is not yet certain which wild strain of the genus Trigonella gave rise to the domesticated fenugreek but believe it was brought into cultivation in the Near East. Charred fenugreek seeds have been recovered from Tell Halal, Iraq, (radiocarbon dating to 4000 BC) and Bronze Age levels of Lachish, as well as desiccated seeds from the tomb of Tutankhamen. Cato the Elder lists fenugreek with clover and vetch as crops grown to feed cattle (De Agri Cultura, 27).
The rhombic yellow to amber colored fenugreek seed, commonly called Methi, is frequently used in the preparation of pickles, curry powders and pastes, and is often encountered in the cuisine of the Indian subcontinent. The young leaves and sprouts of fenugreek are eaten as greens, and the fresh or dried leaves are used to flavor other dishes. The dried leaves (called kasuri methi) have a bitter taste and a strong characteristic smell.
In India, fenugreek seeds are mixed with yogurt and used as a conditioner for hair. It is also one of the ingredients in the making of khakhra, a type of bread. It is used in injera/taita, a type of bread unique to Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine. The word for fenugreek in Amharic is abesh (ኣብሽ), which is also often used as a natural herbal medicine in the treatment of diabetes. It is also sometimes used as an ingredient in the production of clarified butter (Amharic: qibé, Ethiopian and Eritrean Tigrinya: tesme), which is similar to Indian ghee. In Turkey, fenugreek gives its name, çemen, to a hot paste used in pastirma. In Yemen it is the main condiment and an ingredient added to the national dish called saltah. The similarity between the Arabic word hulba and the Mandarin Chinese word hu lu ba reveal the significance of fenugreek in history. Fenugreek, or ªambélilé in Persian, is also one of four herbs used for the Iranian recipe Ghormeh Sabzi.
In Egypt, fenugreek seeds are prepared as tea.
Fenugreek seeds are a rich source of the polysaccharide galactomannan. They are also a source of saponins such as diosgenin, yamogenin, gitogenin, tigogenin, and neotigogens. Other bioactive constituents of fenugreek include mucilage, volatile oils, and alkaloids such as choline and trigonelline.
A side effect of consuming even small amounts of fenugreek (even as just an infusion in water) is a maple syrup or curry smell in the eater's sweat and urine, which is caused by the potent aroma compound sotolone. Fenugreek is frequently used in the production of flavoring for artificial syrups. The taste of toasted fenugreek is additionally based on substituted pyrazines, as is cumin. By itself, it has a somewhat bitter taste.
Fenugreek is mainly used as digestive aid. It is ideal for treating sinus and lung congestion, reducing inflammation, and fighting infection. Fenugreek seed is widely used as a galactagogue (milk producing agent) by nursing mothers to increase inadequate breast milk supply. It can be found in capsule form in many health food stores.
Supplements of fenugreek seeds were shown to lower serum cholesterol, triglyceride, and low-density lipoprotein in human patients and experimental models of hypercholesterolemia and hypertriglyecridemia (Basch et al., 2003). Several human intervention trials demonstrated that the antidiabetic effects of fenugreek seeds ameliorate most metabolic symptoms associated with type-1 and type-2 diabetes in both humans and relevant animal models (Basch et al., 2003; Srinivas, 2005). Fen is currently available commercially in encapsulated forms and is being prescribed as dietary supplements for the control of hypercholesterolemia and diabetes by practitioners of complementary and alternative medicine. In India it is also called methi dana.
In recent research, fenugreek seeds were shown to protect against experimental cancers of the breast (Amin et al., 2005) and colon (Raju et al., 2006). The hepatoprotective properties of fenugreek seeds have also been reported in experimental models (Raju and Bird, 2006; Kaviarasan et al., 2006; Thirunavukarrasu et al., 2003).
Fenugreek seeds contain a high proportion (40%) of a soluble fiber known as mucilage. This fiber forms a gelatinous structure (similar to guar gum) which may have effects on slowing the digestion and absorption of food from the intestine. Dietary fiber has been shown in many clinical studies to help control blood sugar and insulin levels (and even cause weight loss to occur). Some studies indicate a beneficial effect of fenugreek in reducing blood glucose levels and improving glucose tolerance in patients with diabetes. In terms of weight control, the soluble fiber in fenugreek seeds can reduce dietary fat absorption by binding to fatty acids as well as create a sensation of "fullness" and reduced appetite?always a good thing when trying to control blood sugar levels. There is a very interesting amino acid that is extracted from fenugreek seeds called 4-hydroxyisoleucine. This ingredient may stimulate insulin secretion (direct beta-cell stimulation) and help control blood sugar levels.