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Sumac – A Spice with Health Benefits

Not only do the dried and ground berries of the edible Rhus species add wonderful lemony flavor to meat and vegetable dishes, research suggests that food-grade sumac may also be good for you. In fact, the recent studies done on the Staghorn and Sicilian varieties show that sumac has exceptionally high antioxidant properties, so sumac berries may well turn out to be the next superfood to hit the headlines! Antioxidant properties aside, the edible sumac species also have a number of other potential health benefits, including improved glycemic control, reduced cholesterol levels and better cardiovascular health. To get the full scoop, read on!

Sumac Health Benefits

Note: Some plants in the Rhus genus, such as poison sumac which has white berries, are inedible/poisonous. Therefore, for your safety, only get sumac from a reputable supplier. Please also note that some sumacs that are generally considered safe (when used as a spice in normal quantities) may cause severe skin irritation and other adverse reactions in some people.

Antioxidant Protection

Both staghorn sumac (Rhus hirta L.) and Sicilian sumac (Rhus coriaria L.) have been studied for their free radical scavenging properties. A study published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Food Chemistry in 2013 measured the antioxidant capacity of staghorn sumac using a number of different parameters, including FRAP, ORAC and PCL. This in vitro study confirmed the results of earlier studies that had found staghorn sumac to exert significant antioxidant activity, and stated that staghorn sumac has higher antioxidant activities than many common fruits and vegetables, suggesting that sumac might have earned a place on the superfood list. The strong antioxidant properties were largely attributed to polyphenols such as anthocyanins and other flavonoids found in staghorn sumac extracts.

Another study, published in the Journal of Food Biochemistry in April 2014, analyzed the antioxidant capacity of water extracts of Sicilian sumac, along with extracts of a number of other spices, including barberry, cardamom, black pepper, red pepper, fennel, laurel, turmeric and nutmeg. Among the tested spices, sumac came out on top in terms of antioxidant capacity, followed by laurel and barberry.

As you may already know, antioxidants are beneficial molecules that neutralize free radicals, unstable molecules that promote aging and the development of many diseases. It is important to keep in mind, however, that positive findings of in-vitro studies – such as the ones described above – do not necessarily mean that the same positive effects will be observed in actual living beings. That said, there is some evidence that the antioxidants in sumac may really offer health benefits to humans (see section Glycemic Control and Lowered Cholesterol Levels below).

Glycemic Control and Lowered Cholesterol Levels

A double-blind, placebo-controlled study published in the Iranian Journal of Pharmaceutical Research in fall 2014 reported an interesting finding: type 2 diabetic patients might be able to reap a range of health benefits by adding sumac to their diets. At the end of the three month trial period, patients who had been taking 3 grams of ground Rhus coriaria L. (Sicilian sumac) daily had significantly lower levels of blood glucose, Apolipoprotein B (the so-called bad cholesterol) and HbA1c (a type of hemoglobin that is measured to identify the average plasma glucose concentration over prolonged periods of time). At the end of the trial, the sumac group also showed increased levels of TAC (total antioxidant capacity) and apoA-I (a component of the so-called good cholesterol).

In another study, published in the June 2013 edition of the Journal of Medicinal Plants Research, a team of Iranian scientists evaluated the efficacy and safety of Ziabetes. This herbal formulation contains common purslane (Portulaca oleracea L.), Sicilian sumac (Rhus coriaria L.) and pomegranate (Punica granatum L.), and has been used in the Middle East as a traditional remedy for diabetes. Not only did the herbal formulation appear to be safe with no reported side effects, it was also found be effective at decreasing fasting and post-meal blood glucose levels in type 2 diabetic patients.

Sumac and Atherosclerosis

It has also been suggested that sumac berries might be good for your cardiovascular system due to the high levels of antioxidant tannins they contain. Intrigued by these claims, scientists at the Sacred Heart School of Montreal, Canada, decided to carry out a study to investigate whether sumac could inhibit vascular smooth muscle cell (VSMC) migration, a process that plays a key role in the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Using cultivated murine VSMCs and tannins extracted and purified from ground sumac, the researchers observed a 62% reduction in VSMC migration in tannin-treated cells. They concluded that tannins extracted from sumac appear to possess potent antimigratory properties and might therefore offer potential anti-atherosclerosis benefits. They did add, however, that further studies, especially in vivo, are still needed before drawing any definitive conclusions about the health benefits of sumac in this context.

Traditional Uses

According to the Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs covering Eastern and Central North America, various parts of smooth sumac (Rhus glabra L.) – including the berries, roots and leaves – have been used as folk remedies for a variety of conditions and health problems, including asthma, diarrhea, gonorrhea and bed-wetting. According to the same guide, tea made from the berries of staghorn sumac (Rhus hirta L. Sudworth) has been used to treat "female disorders" and lung ailments, while herbal tea made from the leaves of staghorn sumac has been used for sore throats and tonsillitis. These uses, however, lack scientific backing.

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