Fenugreek seeds: A superfood for health and wellness, says new review

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The growing interest in adopting a healthier lifestyle has been accompanied by an increased use of healthy food ingredients, which refers to naturally occurring bioactive compounds that have functions in the human body related to human health. These foods are often referred to as functional foods and are crucial for preventing disease, managing chronic conditions, and providing nutritional value.

A recent study published in the Journal of Food Science discusses the dietary importance and possible applications of fenugreek seeds in foods and beverages.

Study: Current perspectives on fenugreek bioactive compounds and their potential impact on human health: A review of recent insights into functional foods and other high value applications. Image Credit: kostrez / Shutterstock.com

Nutritional composition of fenugreek seeds

Each 100 grams (g) of fenugreek seeds comprises 60% carbohydrates, 25% dietary fiber, 23 g protein, 6 g lipids, and 9 g water. Fenugreek is particularly rich in potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and calcium. Fresh fenugreek leaves contain about 86% water, 6% carbohydrates, 4% protein, and about 1% each of fiber and fat.

Fenugreek seed carbohydrates have a high glycemic index (GI), thus demonstrating their potential to reduce blood sugar levels, as well as total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels. The equimolar galactose:mannose ratio is responsible for a distinctive type of gum that is high in molecular weight and water solubility compared to other plant gums.

Extruded snack foods fortified with fenugreek have a lower GI, better nutritional and functional profile, as well as a long shelf life. For example, the addition of GM to a chickpea-rice blend reduced the GI of this product from 68% to 43%.

Germination increases, and roasting reduces dietary fiber, respectively. Roasted fenugreek seed has lower carbohydrate content but higher protein content.

Between 13-39% of fenugreek seed is protein, which is similar to other legumes used as food, though it differs with the variety. As compared to the husk, the endosperm contains six-fold the protein content.

Fenugreek seed contains proteins that are resistant to heat denaturation, are very stable, water-soluble, and form stable foams and films. In curries, soups, sauces, bread, meat dishes, cheeses, and desserts, fenugreek seeds provide taste, texture, and thickening, in addition to their non-nutritional benefits.

Soaking, germinating, and roasting fenugreek seeds increases protein digestibility by 10-15%. Comparatively, certain processes like brief blanching can increase the vitamin content of fenugreek seeds.

Glutamic acid, aspartic acid, and arginine are the primary amino acids in fenugreek seeds. The main volatile compound is 4-hydroxyisoleucine (4-HIL), which is converted to sotolone, the principal taste-producing molecule. Importantly, 4-HIL, an amino acid not involved in protein synthesis, mediates many of the metabolic actions of fenugreek.

Fenugreek seed lipids include phospholipids and glycolipids, mostly unsaturated triacylglycerols in the form of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA). The high omega-6:omega-3 ratio of fenugreek seeds is nearly 3:1, which is similar to that of hemp, promotes health, and reduces diet-related chronic disease risk. Phytosterols like campesterol and β-Sitosterol comprise 56% to 72% of the total sterols in fenugreek seeds, respectively.

Nutraceuticals in fenugreek include saponins like dioscin and diosgenin, alkaloids, phenolics, and volatile essential oils (Eos). Other nutraceutical compounds present in fenugreek include flavonoids like quercetin and ellagic acid, eugenol and linalool, as well as trigonelline.

Diosgenin is used to synthesize various steroidal drugs, including progesterone and cortisone. Saponin hydrolysis to sapogenins is also capable of producing many compounds that are more bioactive than the parent compounds.

Trigonelline is the most abundant alkaloid present in fenugreek and is potentially protective against type 2 diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases. Triogenelline has been shown to reduce blood lipids, support kidney and liver function, and prevent cancerous changes. Trigonelline may also prevent bacterial and viral infections and appears to act synergistically with other compounds.

Health benefits of fenugreek seeds

Some benefits associated with fenugreek include blood sugar control, lower blood lipids, anticancerous activity, immunomodulation, and pain relief, thereby offering protective effects for the heart and vascular system, gastrointestinal tract, liver, brain, and endocrine system. Fenugreek is also used for preserving reproductive function and relieving skin inflammatory conditions.

Fenugreek compounds act by restoring beta cell function in the pancreas, reducing hepatic neogluconeogenesis, as well as upregulating antioxidant and hepatoprotective enzymes. Improved insulin signaling and antioxidant activity is also associated with trigonelline. Fenugreek can also restore gut microbiota composition, thereby improving metabolic function and glucose tolerance with secondary beneficial effects on other organ systems.

Fenugreek seeds may also regulate appetite, prevent cognitive decline, promote wound healing, treat asthma, reduce dysmenorrhea and muscle pain, and modulate menopausal symptoms.

How is fenugreek used?

Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum L.) is an herb bearing small brown seeds with a unique taste and nutritional value. Fenugreek seeds, leaves, and stems are often used for culinary and medicinal purposes.

Fenugreek seeds provide soups, spice blends, desserts, and teas with a somewhat bittersweet taste. Additionally, biopolymers synthesized from fenugreek are used to stabilize and texturize a wide range of foods.

Fenugreek is a promising ingredient for functional foods and is a ‘generally recognized as safe (GRAS)’ flavoring agent in the United States and other countries. Multiple forms of fenugreek are available, including seed powder, leaf flour, seed gum, seed husk, Eos, and extracts, as well as edible film.

Specialty foods like pasta, bread, milk analogs, low-fat dairy cheese, or flavor-enhanced cheeses have been produced using fenugreek. Meat products can also be made more functional by incorporating fenugreek without noticeably altering the taste. Fenugreek leaves have high antioxidant and antimicrobial content, thus preventing the spoiling and rancidity of meat when used in a marinade.

Fenugreek is tolerable in humans when used at therapeutic doses, except for rare or transient minor side effects like nausea, abdominal pain, or dizziness. In diabetics, fenugreek overuse may lead to hypoglycemia and, if used with drugs that induce low potassium levels, may cause hypokalemia. Fenugreek may also interact with oral anticoagulants to increase bleeding risk and interfere with the absorption of oral drugs.

Journal reference:
  • Alu’datt, M. H., Rababah, T., Al-ali, S., et al. (2024). Current perspectives on fenugreek bioactive compounds and their potential impact on human health: A review of recent insights into functional foods and other high value applications. Journal of Food Science. doi:10.1111/1750-3841.16970.
Dr. Liji Thomas

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Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.

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