Cumin Seeds, Powder, Health Benefits and Substitute

What is Cumin?

what is cuminCumin is botanically known as Cuminum cyminum and is a flowering plant which is a member of the parsley family. Natively, it grows from Eastern Mediterranean countries to South Asia and is a popular spice used in local foods throughout the area. The seeds of its fruit are dried and commonly ground before using but they can also be used whole. They have an appearance like caraway seed with their oblong shape and ridged sides. It is a staple spice in Indian, Middle Eastern, southwestern, Mexican, and North African cooking.

Ground Cumin

Ground cumin is the most widely-used form of this spice. It is found in nearly every spice cupboard and is an essential flavor in foods such as curries and stews. It is also popularly used in southwestern and Mexican dishes as an accompaniment to savory foods made of vegetables, meat, and fish. In the US, we most commonly encounter it in pre-packaged taco spice mixes. However, once you become “cumin-inspired” you won’t need to buy those pre-made mixes but will want to…and be able to…make them yourself!

Whole Cumin Seeds

The whole cumin seed is very popular in India and is often one of the first spices to be added in their recipes. In fact, cumin is the second most popular spice in the world after black pepper. Whole cumin seeds give off a lovely, nutty flavor when toasted and the soft aroma can fill a room. Heat them in a dry pan before starting your dish to keep the flavor contained to the seed, or heat them for a few minutes in the oil to bring their wonderful flavor to the entire dish. Don’t overly toast them or they’ll become bitter and you’ll need to start again.

What does Cumin taste like?

Cumin has an unmistakable, earthy, spicy, yet musky flavor. It’s the perfect spice to use in complement to chilies as it offsets their heat. In fact, many people who don’t like the heat of chilies use cumin as it adds so much flavor and aroma to food. It’s depth of flavor is unmatched and unmistakable.


Cumin Health Benefits

Amazingly, this tiny little seed packs a punch when it comes to health benefits. Cumin seeds have anti-carcinogenic properties which, in laboratory studies, have been shown to protect from stomach and liver tumors. Many believe this comes from cumin’s ability to flush free-radicals from the body and enhance the liver’s detoxification enzymes.

Cumin seeds are also an excellent source of iron which is an integral part of healthy blood as it transports oxygen from your lungs to your cells. They also contain Manganese, Iron, and other minerals. In one study published by the NIH, cumin oil was shown to reduce cholesterol, pancreatic inflammatory markers, and even triglycerides.

Additionally, cumin is great for the digestive system and many countries have the tradition of chewing a pinch of cumin seed after a meal. This goes along with research that has shown that cumin can increase pancreatic enzymes which are instrumental to healthy digestion.

You can also buy cumin oil, and when used topically the essential oils present in cumin have healing properties that can prevent symptoms of premature aging. They also have disinfectant and antifungal properties. Add to this the presence of Vitamin E in cumin oil and you have a wonderfully potent product that can boost your skin to help make it healthy and beautiful – long into old age.
For a list of some of the best health benefits of cumin, this chart by offers a great visual:

Cumin Substitute

Although none will give you the depth of flavor as cumin, ground coriander, chili powder and caraway seeds are good substitutes for cumin in recipes. Start with half the amount the recipe calls for and work your way up to the flavor you desire. You can even create a combination of the three to emulate the spicy, nutty, and earthy flavor that cumin provides. If you want to go on a spice adventure, try the Indian spice Garam Masala. Garam Masala is in fact a blend of spices that includes cumin. Most traditionally it includes black pepper, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, bay leaf and cumin among other spices.


As the world marches forward with technological advances, it is interesting to notice how we often reach back in history to connect to older, tried and true, all-natural health products. Whether it be in cooking or health related issues, many of the products our ancestors used are still relevant and useful today. Cumin is one of the more powerful of these with its vast array of uses from the wonderful taste it adds to our food to the healing properties it offers on so many levels. Best of all, it can easily be found and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to purchase. Pick some up, read up on its benefits, and see where it takes you.