Caraway is a plant in the carrot family that is native to western Asia, Europe, and northern Africa and traditionally used in cuisines from those regions. It is also called meridian fennel and Persian cumin and has a potent, anise-like flavor.
The fruit and seeds of the caraway plant may be used whole, crushed, or powdered, making it easy to add to a variety of dishes. The leaves and roots are also edible. In the United States, caraway seeds are often added to rye bread, but it is also used in stews, sauces, liquors, and even desserts worldwide.
Besides its use as a spice, however, caraway has long been used in traditional medicine. Modern science is finding evidence that caraway has a lot to offer in terms of nutritional and other health benefits.
Thanks to its pungent flavor, caraway is used in many cultures as a breath freshener. In some parts of India, for example, people chew the seeds as a natural alternative to using a breath mint.
For those who prefer a mouthwash, caraway essential oil, which may have antibacterial properties, is often added to plant-based dental products.
One of the most important uses for caraway in traditional medicine is for the treatment of indigestion and other gastrointestinal issues. Modern studies have borne this out, showing that caraway can reduce digestive discomforts and ease cramping.
One study on functional dyspepsia found that combining caraway and peppermint extract is a safe and effective short-term remedy for some of the most bothersome digestive symptoms. In another study using rats, caraway oil was found to be effective in the treatment of colitis from inflammatory bowel disease.
Since caraway is known to be helpful for digestive issues, it makes sense that it has also traditionally been used for those politely described in Victorian times as "having an excess of wind." In modern terms, chewing caraway seeds or taking caraway oil may help people experiencing the discomfort of gas. This may be in part because caraway oil appears to have pathogen-fighting abilities that target "bad" bacteria in the gut while leaving the "good" bacteria unharmed.
Physicians have been recommending caraway for weight management since the 11th century, but can it really help fight obesity and help people achieve a healthy weight? The science looks promising.
In one randomized, triple-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial from 2013, seventy overweight and obese women were divided into two groups, a treatment group and a placebo group. Members of the treatment group took a caraway extract once a day for three months. At the end of the study, compared with the placebo group, members of the treatment group showed a significant reduction in weight, body mass index, body fat percentage, and waist-to-hip ratio.
Several studies have demonstrated caraway's antimicrobial abilities. In one, caraway essential oil's antibacterial properties fought nasty bacteria including Staph, salmonella, candida, and listeria. Topical treatment with caraway extract also showed potent antibacterial and antifungal benefits. When consumed, there is evidence that caraway also positively affects gut health by reducing harmful bacteria without hurting good bacteria in the digestive system.
One reason caraway seeds may be effective in promoting so many health benefits is their high antioxidant content. Caraway oils and other products have been found to contain many antioxidants including flavonoids, linalool, and other polyphenolic compounds. Free radicals in the body are implicated in aging and inflammatory issues, but these antioxidants bind free radicals, preventing them from causing harm.
Cancer occurs when a harmful mutation in a particular gene causes cells to grow out of control. Some mutations are caused by exposure to carcinogens. Some studies show encouraging evidence that chemicals in caraway help protect cells that have been exposed to carcinogens, probably in part due to the high levels of antioxidants. These beneficial chemicals may prevent cancer or slow tumor growth.
Caraway has traditionally been added to breads and other recipes because it tastes good, but science shows that it also boosts the fiber and protein content, improving the food's nutrition profile. One study found that even after the oils are removed, adding the leftover caraway seed cakes to breads resulted in a much more nutritious final product.
Diuretics may be used to expel excess salt and water from the body by increasing urine output. Traditional Moroccan medicine uses caraway as a diuretic. In a study involving male rats, treatment with caraway extract increased urine output and the total volume of excreted urine for the entire eight-day treatment period.
Doctors measure high-density lipoprotein (HDL), low-density lipoprotein (LDL), and triglycerides as part of a cholesterol profile. The ratio of HDL to LDL is important, and a lower amount of triglycerides in the blood is desirable. In a rat study, caraway seed extract reduced cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the plasma of normal rats in a single dose and showed even more significant benefits over a fifteen-day period.
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