Fenugreek

Fenugreek is an herb with fascinating medicinal properties, ancient origins, and an enticing taste. Learn the best ways to use this beneficial plant.

Quick Facts
General Information
  • Common name(s)Fenugreek, Greek hay seed, sicklefruit fenugreek
  • TCM nameK'u-Tou
  • Ayurvedic nameMethi
  • Scientific nameTrigonella foenum-graecum
  • Geographic distributionEurope, Africa, Asia, North America
  • Plant typeHerb
  • Native regionAsia, Europe
  • Main producer(s)India
  • Main Economic UseCulinary
Fenugreek

Fenugreek, which researchers believe to have originated in the Middle East, has been cultivated for centuries to be used as both a spice and a medicinal herb. It remains popular today throughout the world, but many people are unaware of the nutritional and medicinal advantages it can have. Fenugreek has been cultivated by humankind since ancient times, with its earliest remains dating back over 4,000 years.

Medicinal and Nutritional Information

Quick Facts (Medicinal and Nutritional Information)
  • Medicinal actionHormone balancer, Galactogogue
  • Key constituentsDiosgenin, tigogenin, neotigogenin, yamogenin
  • Ways to useCapsules, Hot infusions/tisanes, Liquid extracts, Powder, Ointment
  • Medicinal rating(2) Minorly useful plant
  • Safety rankingSafe
Fenugreek Benefits

Health Benefits of Fenugreek

Fenugreek is one of the most versatile curative plants and has a long history of medicinal application; it is still mostly used for:

  • Increasing breast milk production. This is arguably the most popular use of fenugreek. The herb is widely consumed to induce milk secretion in nursing women.

  • Enhancing endocrine function. Fenugreek is used to restore hormonal balance in both women and men. It is particularly helpful for relieving PMS and menopause symptoms, as well as for regulating testosterone production in men.

Additionally, fenugreek can be useful for:

  • Relieving heartburn. The mucilage content in fenugreek prevents the irritation and discomfort caused by stomach acids and gastric ulcers.

  • Lowering blood sugar. Fenugreek may be able to help improve insulin production in people with diabetes.

  • Reducing the risk of heart disease. Preliminary studies show that fenugreek may be able to reduce fat accumulation, thus being a useful therapeutic agent for fighting metabolic disease.

How It Works

Did you know?

Fenugreek seeds contain no essential oil and their characteristic scent and flavor are due to the presence of fenugreek lactone, an extremely powerful odorant agent.

The main reason for fenugreek's varied medicinal properties is its high nutritional makeup. Fenugreek has a low caloric value and contains little fat, although it has both carbohydrates and protein. In addition, it contains vitamins B3 (niacin) and C (ascorbic acid), as well as minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and iron.

The herb is also rich in phytocompounds such as phytomenadione (a vitamin K derivative that aids coagulation), as well as alkaloids, aminoacids (such as lysine), and steroidal saponins, mainly diosgenin, tigogenin, neotigogenin, and yamogenin. Furthermore, fenugreek contains phytoantiandrogens, such as stearic acid, palmitic acid, and beta-sitosterol. These phytocompounds are thought to be responsible for the galactagogue, hypoglycemic, and hormone balancing properties of fenugreek.

Additionally, fenugreek's omega-3 fatty acids and dietary fiber, as well as a water-soluble polysaccharide called galactomannan, are thought to contribute with the beneficial effects of fenugreek on metabolic functions. Galactomannan has been shown to help regulate digestive enzymes, also inhibiting the absorption of glucose in the gastrointestinal tract.

The compound diosgenin can be used to synthesize hormone medicines.

Dong quai and saw palmetto also possess hormone balancing properties, whereas cinnamon and yacon can be used as alternative sources for hypoglycemic benefits as well.

Fenugreek Side Effects

While fenugreek is generally a mild herb, it can produce gastrointestinal side effects, such as bloating and diarrhea. Those with sensitive skin may experience irritation to topical applications of fenugreek.

Fenugreek Cautions

Fenugreek can worsen asthma symptoms and further lower glucose levels in diabetics. The herb also can cause uterine contractions and should not be consumed by pregnant women.

How to Consume Fenugreek

Quick Facts (How to Consume)
  • Edible partsSeed
  • Edible usesFlavoring

For culinary purposes, fenugreek is used as a spice, an aromatic herb, and a vegetable, depending on which part of the plant is used. However, the health benefits of fenugreek are better absorbed when consumed in medicinal forms.

Natural Forms

  • Dried. The dried seeds and leaves of fenugreek are often used to enhance the flavor of meat, poultry and marinated vegetables.

  • Cooked. In Egypt and parts of Asia, the seedlings and pods are also consumed as a vegetable, and the dried leaves are used to flavor sauces and gravies.

  • Powder. Fenugreek powder has become very popular as an addition to smoothies and beverages, since it is believed to enhance athletic performance and aid weight loss.

  • Infusion. Fenugreek seeds can be brewed into a warm tisane to increase milk supply in nursing mothers, lower blood sugar, and relieving heartburn.

Herbal Remedies & Supplements

  • Liquid extract. In this concentrated form, fenugreek can be taken to relieve the symptoms of menopause and support cardiovascular health.

  • Ointment. When applied topically as a salve, the antioxidant properties of fenugreek are thought to be effective relieving the joint pain and inflammation caused by arthritis. 

  • Capsules. Fenugreek can be taken in fixed doses of two to three capsules, three times a day, avoiding the slightly bitter taste of the herb. Capsules are often taken to promote digestive health, hormonal regulation, and insulin production.

Buying

Quick Facts (Buying)
  • Where to buySupermarkets, Big online retailers, Specialized health stores

Natural Forms

Raw fenugreek can be found in some large food stores, but it is not a common. Instead, fenugreek seeds, greens of the plants, and powdered fenugreek can be found at specialized health stores or purchased through online retailers. The form of presentation selected is dependent upon whether it is intended to be used as an herb, spice, or vegetable.

Herbal Remedies & Supplements

Fenugreek supplements can be found in specialized health stores; however, online retailers stock a wide variety of fenugreek remedies and supplements.

Brands may come with different concentrations of fenugreek, and it is important to seek for medical advice before embarking on taking fenugreek supplements, especially for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Growing

Quick Facts (Growing)
  • Life cycleAnnual
  • Harvested partsSeeds, Leaves, Shoot
  • Light requirementsFull sun
  • Soil pH6.1 – 6.5 (Slightly acidic), 6.6 – 7.3 (Neutral)
  • Growing habitatArid or desert regions

Thought to be originated in the Mediterranean basin, fenugreek is an annual herb that rarely can be seen growing in the wild, since it is intensively cultivated for human consumption. This is a highly adaptable plant and can be easily grown in a variety of climatic conditions.

Growing Guidelines

  • Fenugreek requires planting in a position that enjoys full sun and has rich quality soil, with a pH between 6.0 - 7.0 and a good drainage system.

  • Deep plowing is necessary before sowing fenugreek. The seedbed must be moist and fairly firm.

  • It is best to plant fenugreek seeds in ground that has been treated with manure. They should germinate within two days after planting.

  • Fenugreek is a drought resistant herb and it is also fairly frost sensitive. It can tolerate temperatures of 50-59°F (10-15°C).
  • Pods should be harvested before they shatter.

Additional Information

Quick Facts (Additional Information)
  • Other usesAnimal feed, Cosmetics

Plant Biology

The fenugreek plant can grow up to 20 inches (51 cm) tall, and it is its seeds that are used for seasoning dishes. The seeds grow in a pod, with about 20 seeds in each. These tender pods, the leaves, and the shoots can also be used as vegetables.

  • Classification

    Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) is a member of the Fabaceae family, also known as the legume, pea, or bean family. It includes approximately 19,400 species spread out over 730 genera, making it one of the largest botanical families. Some well-known members of the Fabaceae family are alfalfa (Medicago sativa), peanut (Arachis hypogaea), soy (Glycine max), and tamarind (Tamarindus indica); all notable for having stipulated leaves, and easily recognized by their fruits.

  • Related Species

    Fenugreek belongs to the Trigonella genus, which has 36 recognized species. To date, no subspecies or varieties of Trigonella foenum-graecum, or sicklefruit fenugreek, have been identified. This species is considered distinct from wild fenugreek, from which it was domesticated thousands of years ago. Other members of the Trigonella genus are also referred to by the common name "fenugreek." Examples include T. caerulea, or blue fenugreek, and T. procumbens, or trailing fenugreek, though T. foenum-graecum remains the most common and medicinally useful.

Historical Information

In the 16th century BCE, fengureek was grown by ancient Egyptians and valued for its medicinal value and for mummification; remains of its seeds have been found near the tomb of Tutankhamen. Romans in the 3rd century BCE used fenugreek as cattle fodder, and it was grown extensively in the gardens of Charlemagne. Fenugreek continued to enjoy popularity in southern Europe and Asia, gradually spreading throughout the world as a culinary ingredient and medicinal herb.

The name of the genus, Trigonella, derives from the Latin for "little triangle", in reference to the shape of fenugreek yellowish-white flowers. On the other hand, foenum-graecum means "Greek hay" and it is thought to be assigned by the Romans who got the plant from Greece, where fenugreek has been a common crop since ancient times.

Economic Data

Fenugreek is economically important as both a food as a medicinal herb. The herb continues to be grown extensively throughout its native regions. India is currently the biggest producer of fenugreek, accounting for 80% of the world's production. Other major fenugreek-producing countries include Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Turkey, Spain, Morocco, and France.

Other Uses

In ancient times, fenugreek was used as cattle fodder. Due to the pleasant look of fenugreek, it is also kept by some as an ornamental plant. Fenugreek essence is added to some cosmetics.

Bibliography

  • Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine
  • NCCAM Herbs at a Glance, Fenugreek
  • Medicinal Plants of the World
  • The Herbal Handbook
  • Germplasm Resources Information, Trigonella foenum-graecum
  • Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Antiallergic effect of Trigonella foenum-graecum L. extracts on allergic skin inflammation induced by trimellitic anhydride in BALB/c mice, 2012
  • Natural Pregnancy, Natural Baby, p. 86
  • Biotechnology and Bioprocess Engineering, Inhibitory effect of fenugreek galactomannan on digestive enzymes related to diabetes, hyperlipidemia, and liver-kidney dysfunctions, 2010
  • International Journal of Medical Sciences, Efficacy of FurosapTM, a novel Trigonella foenum-graecum seed extract, in Enhancing Testosterone Level and Improving Sperm Profile in Male Volunteers, 2017
  • Fenugreek: The Genus Trigonella, pp. 26-28
  • Spice Crops, p. 78
  • Lipids in Health and Disease, Inhibitory potential of omega-3 fatty and fenugreek essential oil on key enzymes of carbohydrate-digestion and hypertension in diabetes rats, 2011
  • Advances in Nutrition, Diosgenin, 4-Hydroxyisoleucine, and Fiber from Fenugreek: Mechanisms of Actions and Potential Effects on Metabolic Syndrome, 2015
  • BioMed Research International, Fenugreek Seed Extract Inhibit Fat Accumulation and Ameliorates Dyslipidemia in High Fat Diet-Induced Obese Rats, 2014
  • University of Nebraska, Fenugreek investigated as potential alternative crop; eventually a farm to pharmacy complex?, 2013
  • Alternative Medicine Review, Therapeutic applications of fenugreek, 2003
  • Nutrition Research, In vitro intestinal glucose uptake is inhibited by galactomannan from Canadian fenugreek seed (Trigonella foenum graecum L) in genetically lean and obese rats, 2009