Top Tamarind Benefits

By | January 7, 2019

Tamarind is a tropical fruit many in the West haven’t tasted, but it comes in a pod that looks somewhat like a smooth, pale brown bean and inside has a sweetly acidic flavor and a sticky, paste-like consistency when mature. It’s relevant that tamarind, aka Tamarindus indica L, is known as the “date of India.”

Tamarind trees are native to Africa but were transported to India thousands of years ago, and possibly to Egypt as early as 400 B.C., a study in India in 2011 notes, referring to it as “one of the most important multipurpose tropical fruit tree species.”1 Brought to the Americas in the 16th century, the tree grows extensively in Mexico.

Depending on its use, people in Uganda have used it for as long as anyone can remember, as a snack when its ripe; the immature green pods are eaten both fresh and boiled with porridge, rice, fish and meats to give it a sour flavor. The fern-like leaves are cooked and eaten like a vegetable, and the pulp is sometimes made into wine or combined with other tropical fruits such as guava, papaya or banana. 

Tamarind is often used to flavor and thicken sauces, soups, preserves, jams and jellies. When the fruit inside is ripe, the pods or husks are removed, and the fruit is soaked in cold water to make a refreshing beverage. In the Bahamas, tamarind is roasted on coals and eaten with wood ashes,2 and it’s a prominent ingredient in Worcestershire sauce and barbecue sauce.

Tamarind has been grown in indigenous cultures of Eastern Uganda for generations, both for food and medicine. It’s been foundational for a number of other functions, from cultural and social traditions, to income generation, to environmental amelioration. Like most other plant-based foods, tamarind has its own complex and unique compounds that make it beneficial for health.

The fruit is used for food and medicine, including eating it raw, dried and ground into a spice, dried to make candies and, once it’s completely ripe, added to desserts as well as more savory dishes.3 It also has the ability to improve a number of health conditions throughout your body, especially:

Aiding respiratory health4

Promoting heart health by reducing blood pressure5

Regulating blood glucose levels to help control diabetes6

Potential weight loss via inhibited fat-storing enzyme

Pain relief, including headaches

Fighting infection by strengthening your immune system

Reducing fever7

Protecting against intestinal parasites8

Reducing hemorrhoid pain and inflammation

Stimulating the release of gastric juices to help regulate digestion through its fiber9

Improving blood circulation due to high iron content10

Protecting your skin against premature aging

Enhancing nerve function due to its high thiamine content

Alleviating skin disorders

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Polyphenolic Aspects of Tamarind

Studies have recognized the extensive vitamin and mineral content of tamarind, including “a high level of protein with many essential amino acids, which help to build strong and efficient muscles,”11 significant amounts of calcium, phosphorus and potassium, as well as iron, sodium, copper, zinc and nickel,12 the latter of which is needed in only trace amounts to enhance your body’s ability to absorb iron, prevent anemia and strengthen your bones to offset osteoporosis.13 

Thiamine is one of the B complex vitamins that serves to improve your nerve function and muscle development, and a unique compound known as hydroxycitric acid (HCA) can be extracted and used as a spice to suppress your appetite and promote weight loss.14

Tamarind leaves contain a “fair” amount of vitamin C and β-carotene, and a high mineral content, particularly phosphorus, potassium, calcium and magnesium.15 However, while both the pulp and the seeds have been revealed as rich in potent antioxidants and other phytonutrients, in some areas, tamarind seeds have been “underutilized” because they were simply discarded. An overarching university study16 in Kenya in 2017 reveals common medicinal uses:

“Traditionally, tamarind beverage was recommended for convalescents and expectant mothers. Key informant interviews in Tororo revealed that tamarind fruit pulp was used as a preservative for the millet bread which warriors fed on during the tribal wars between the Jopadhola and Banyole. Tamarind fruit beverage was also commonly given to rejuvenate those returning from war.”17

One review reporting on the extent of the plant’s “explored potential” also listed the ability of tamarind extracts in traditional medicine, adding helminthes infections (parasites), abdominal pain, diarrhea and dysentery, wound healing, eye diseases, malaria and fever, constipation, cell cytotoxicity and gonorrhea. It continues:

“The plant is reported to possess antidiabetic activity, antimicrobial activity, antivenomic activity, antioxidant activity, antimalarial activity, hepatoprotective activity, antiasthmatic activity, laxative activity and anti-hyperlipidemic activity. Every part of the plant from root to leaf tips is useful for human needs.”18

A number of powerful polyphenolics helps explain why tamarind has for thousands of years and continues to have such dramatic effects on disease. The Research Journal of Microbiology19 lists tartaric acid, acetic acid, succinic acid, alkaloid, flavonoids, sesquiterpenes and glycosides as some of the active ingredients in tamarind.

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In addition, proanthocyanidins include apigenin, procyanidin, epicatechin, procyanidin dimer, procyanidin trimer and, to lesser degrees, but significant enough to impart positive benefits, taxifolin, eriodictyol and naringenin, in respective order.

Uses for and Historical Significance of Tamarind

From planting to eventual harvest is a slow, lengthy process, as the tree — which can reach 80 feet in arid climates, but only 18 to 20 feet high in California — doesn’t produce for four or five years. Once mature, tamarind trees can produce as much as 350 pounds of fruit per year.20 Harvesting is often accomplished by shaking the tree and gleaning what falls.

The peoples’ “indigenous knowledge of the fruit,” (called “IK” in the study) has been relied on for expanded use, preservation and conservation of Tamarindus indica L, its scientific name. In fact, 18 uses for tamarind explain why at least half the locals assisting in the study grew the tree in their home gardens; however, 52 percent of the tamarind trees were identified by scientists as self-propagated.

Reported nonfood uses for the tamarind tree included shade or windbreaks to protect native homes, building materials, oral hygiene (toothbrushes), textiles, dying, making gunpowder,21 feed for livestock and food preservation as practical functions.

More Studies on Tamarind for Multiple Diseases and Disorders

A number of studies over recent years have identified tamarind as having compounds useful in treating diseases, including diabetes. One of them is a study conducted in India in 2004, which notes:

“Plants are being effectively tried in a variety of pathophysiological states. Tamarindus indica Linn. is one of them. In the present study, aqueous extract of seed of Tamarindus indica Linn. was found to have potent antidiabetogenic activity that reduces blood sugar level in streptozotocin (STZ)-induced diabetic male rat.”22

A 2011 study23 from the University of Adelaide in Australia observes traditional medicinal uses for tamarind as a treatment for cold, fever, jaundice, stomach disorders, diarrhea and as a skin cleanser.

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More significantly, the study lists its “tannins, saponins, sesquiterpenes, alkaloids and phlobatamins and extracts” tested as active against both gram positive and gram negative bacteria. The study’s conclusion notes the plant’s “broad spectrum antibacterial activity and a potential source of new classes of antibiotics that could be useful for infectious disease chemotherapy and control.”24

The seeds have been shown to have significant free radical-scavenging abilities,25 and according to a book published first in 1930 and updated in 1961, “Woody Plants of Ghana,” the fruit can act as a laxative due to the malic and tartaric acids and potassium acid.26

The earlier reference to wound healing by tamarind was addressed in another study, as was its potential for treating malaria27 and dysentery.28 Tamarind’s high fiber content is responsible for its natural laxative properties, as it may help to add bulk to your stool while also stimulating bile activity and digestion.29

In addition, tamarind was reported in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology to reduce blood pressure, possibly due to the potassium content,30 and a compound called lupeol found in tamarind exerts anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties, according to a study at the University of Wisconsin, while also reducing eye irritations such as conjunctivitis, aka pink eye, and addressing pain from gout, rheumatism and arthritis.31

One thing to note regarding tamarind is that it has a tendency to act as a blood thinner, so be aware if you take aspirin, which does the same, as does blood thinners. But this exotic fruit’s ability to boost your immune system, fight microbial and fungal infections and act as a powerful antioxidant make tamarind a highly nutritious plant-based food.