Perfect for rice dishes, breads, cakes, various desserts, cheeses, tomato soups, potato or cabbage salads and so on, caraway (Carum carvi) boasts a variety of culinary uses as well as health benefits. The plant belongs to the Apiaceae family and is thus related to carrots, parsley, cumin and celery, to name a few of its most notable family members. Though once known exclusively for its culinary importance, caraway bears medicinal importance as well as both its seeds and derivate essential oil have been shown to possess wonderful health effects. In addition to improving intestinal motility and relieving indigestion and its symptoms, caraway extracts exhibit blood sugar lowering properties and anti-obesity activity.
What does caraway look like? Caraway is related to carrots, celery, dill, parsley, parsnip, cumin, fennel, cilantro and anise and is appearance follows specific traits of the Apiaceae (or carrot) family. Plants reach height of over 50 cm and produce tiny white or pink flowers grouped in umbrella-like structures. Similar to dill and carrots, caraway plants have fine, feathery green leaves. The parts we so eagerly call caraway seeds are actually caraway fruits.
What do caraway seeds look like? Caraway seeds look a lot like fennel seeds: though tiny (about 2 mm), they have an elongated, crescent shape with soft vertical ridge-like structures on their surface and an earth-brown, yet inconsistent color. Fennel seeds tend to be lighter in color.
What do caraway seeds taste like? Caraway seeds have a slightly sweet-peppery flavor with a warm aftertaste. Their flavor is a result of their essential oil constituents such as carvone, carveol, limonene or anethole, some of which can be found in other spices such as anise, cumin, fennel or licorice. Overall, caraway seeds taste somewhat like fennel seeds but, unlike fennel seeds which have a stronger licorice or anise-like flavor, caraway has a softer anise-like flavor with hints of other flavor notes.
What is it good for?
Caraway is generally used for ailments, conditions and disorders of the digestive system and respiratory tract. The seeds are the most commonly used, but the essential oil also hold notable health effects. Find out below the most notable benefits and uses of caraway seeds and essential oil.
1) Improve intestinal motility. Preparations from caraway and peppermint essential oil have been shown to greatly improve intestinal motility problems and contribute to regulating intestinal transit time (Effects of peppermint oil and caraway oil on gastroduodenal motility). This, along with the insane amount of dietary fiber in the seeds (38 g of fiber per 100 g of seeds), can effectively help relieve constipation, manage hemorrhoids symptoms and contribute to colon health, despite extremely low amounts being recommended for consumption.
Moreover, because of its action on the smooth muscles of the intestinal tract, caraway is great for relieving abdominal cramps and thus ease pain associated with colic (Effects of Carum carvi L. (Caraway) extract and essential oil on TNBS-induced colitis in rats). Enjoying a cup of warm tea made from infused seeds is believed to offer the same effect as essential oil preparations.
2) Good for irritable bowel syndrome. Again, preparations made from caraway and peppermint oil are believed to efficiently relieve symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome such as flatulence and mild cramping as a result of their relaxing effect on the smooth muscles of the gastrointestinal tract. Caraway and peppermint may also prove effective in tea form and can be combined with other herbs with similar health effects such as fennel seeds for better results (see benefits of fennel seeds).
3) Help relieve indigestion. Preparations made from caraway seeds and its derivate essential oil have proved effective at relieving indigestion symptoms such as intestinal gas, bloating, painful abdominal cramps, nausea, acid reflux or a slower emptying of the stomach because of the plants’ regulating effect on the intestinal muscles.
4) Boast blood sugar-lowering effects. According to animal studies, rats receiving either one or 14 doses of water extracts of caraway (and caper) showed a significant decrease in blood sugar levels (Caraway and caper: potential anti-hyperglycaemic plants in diabetic rats). Although the mechanisms are not clearly understood yet, caraway seeds do have a strong blood sugar-lowering effect and thus may prove important for both diabetes prevention and management.
5) May help fight obesity and associated problems. In a study focusing on revealing whether or not caraway can promote weight loss, participants were given either 30 ml of caraway extract a day or a placebo substitute for 90 days, no dietary or lifestyle change required. Those receiving the extract showed a significant reduction in body fat, body mass index and waist-to-hip ratio as well as body weight (Antiobesity Effect of Caraway Extract on Overweight and Obese Women: A Randomized, Triple-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial).
It is believed the plant extracts act at intestinal level, regulating gut bacteria in such a manner that our body begins processing macronutrients (fats, proteins, carbohydrates) more efficiently, resulting in losing weight naturally and without side effects.
6) Excellent natural antimicrobial. Anethole, one of many naturally-occurring compounds in the plant, exhibits excellent antibacterial and antifungal properties against a variety of pathogens, including Salmonella enterica and Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which are known to cause potentially serious health issues. For this reason, plant extracts are added to dental care products such as mouthwashes or toothpaste with the purpose of preventing tooth decay, treating gingivitis (in combination with other similar herbs such as clove or sage, echinacea) or even relieving bad breath (halitosis). Also see benefits of cloves.
7) Great source of vitamins and dietary minerals. Caraway seeds are a great source of dietary minerals such as iron, copper, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese and zinc (50% or more of the recommended daily intake for the average adult). They also contain generous amounts of vitamins A, C, E and B vitamins, further contributing to keeping us in good health.
Vitamins and minerals exert a tonic effect on our body and fulfill the most diverse functions, from maintaining elevated energy levels and beautiful skin to promoting bone health, supporting immunity, offering antioxidant protection, improving digestion and preventing premature hair graying.