Tamarind is prized around the world for its medicinal and culinary value. Each and every part of the tree is used as either a remedy or spice. The fruits, leaves, and seeds have strong antibacterial, antioxidant, and anti-diabetic effects. Read on to discover what makes tamarind special, how to eat it, and what science has uncovered about its benefits.
What is Tamarind?
Tamarind (Tamarindus indica) is a large evergreen tree in the legume family (Fabaceae). It is widely found in Africa and southern Asia and grows in most tropical regions throughout the world .
Tamarind is an important, sometimes sacred, plant in many different cultures and traditional medicine systems. It was mentioned in ancient Indian scriptures as far back as 1200 BC and was first cultivated in Egypt in 400 BC .
The tree produces pods that contain a sour, fruity pulp filled with seeds. In India, 230,000 tons of tamarind pulp are harvested every year. As the fruit ripens, its taste changes from sour to a characteristic sweet but tart one. The flavor is often described as intense, somewhat akin to an eclectic mix of lemons, apricots, and dates .
From the roots to the leaves, every part of the plant is used as food and medicine, in addition to a wide variety of other applications.
The fruit pulp is the most commonly used part of the tamarind tree. In traditional medicine systems, it’s given as a remedy for constipation or diarrhea, diabetes, stomach pain, and fever. It’s also a key ingredient in curries, chutneys, sauces, meat dishes, and desserts [2, 1].
Although the seeds are often discarded, research shows they have wound–healing and anti–diabetic effects. A complex sugar (polysaccharide) found in the seeds called xyloglucan has unique properties that make it an excellent vehicle for delivering drugs in the body [3, 4, 5, 6].
Polysaccharides from the seeds are also added to improve the texture and consistency of processed foods, while the seed oil is used for cooking. Plus, the seed oil is also used as natural, eco-friendly dye fixative or antibacterial dye that gives a reddish-brownish color to textile [7, 1]!
Leaves and Flowers
Aside from being a tasty, spicy addition to curries, salads, and stews, tamarind leaves and flowers can also be applied for wound healing and fighting infections.
Wood, Roots, and Bark
Tamarind bark is also used to heal wounds, prevent diarrhea, and remove parasites, while the roots are often used to help with stomach aches. Plus, folks make furniture and tools from the wood [1, 2].
- Protects against the harmful effects of fluoride
- Improves heart health
- Controls blood sugar and improves insulin levels
- Helps with dry eyes
- High in sugar
- Not well-studied in humans
- Imported tamarind products may contain unsafe lead levels
Nutrition & Active Components
Tamarind fruit pulp is very high in sugar (6g sugar/10g pulp). It is a good source of vitamin C and iron and also increases iron absorption. Plus, it contains various nutrients: magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, copper, and calcium. Other compounds in the pulp include [8, 9, 1, 10]:
- Organic acids (tartaric acid, acetic acid, and malic acid)
- Fats, amino acids, and fiber
- B vitamins and trace amounts of zinc and selenium
- Polysaccharides (xyloglucans)
- Plant sterols (campesterol and β-sitosterol)
- Flavonoids (epicatechin)
- Protein and fatty acids (palmitic and linoleic acid)
Polysaccharides in tamarind seeds improve immune cell function and inhibit cancer growth by causing programmed cell death (apoptosis). On the other hand, they increase cell growth and division of healthy cells, which helps with wound healing [16, 17, 18].
- Essential oils (limonene and benzyl benzoate)
- Anti-inflammatory triterpenes (lupeol)
- Vitamins C, E, B1, B2, B3, and provitamin A
Tamarind bark contains sugars, saponins, flavonoids, and tannins .
Health Benefits of Tamarind
1) Protects Against Fluoride Toxicity
Fluoride toxicity is an important global health problem. We ingest it through drinking water and dental products. Too much of it can damage your kidneys, liver, thyroid, and gut and cause problems with thinking and memory .
Two studies of 35 people found that eating tamarind paste (10 g/day) increased the amount of fluoride excreted in the urine by up to 40%. It also reduced the loss of the key minerals zinc, copper, calcium, and magnesium. Tamarind increases urine pH (making it more alkaline), which makes it easier for fluoride to be excreted [31, 32].
Bottom Line? Tamarind can help you detoxify fluoride and protect you from its negative effects, while preventing the loss of important minerals.
2) Improves Heart Health
It also prevented hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) by boosting levels of the powerful antioxidants superoxide dismutase, catalase, and glutathione peroxidase. These antioxidants prevent LDL cholesterol from oxidizing. Oxidized LDL is harmful: it plays a key role in atherosclerosis and heart disease .
To sum it up, tamarind fruits and seeds benefit the heart. They reduce high cholesterol and blood pressure and prevent fatty plaques and hardening of the arteries.
3) May Protect the Liver
Tamarind leaves are traditionally used for liver disorders. They contain a variety of antioxidants – such as flavonoids, vitamin C, and beta carotene – that work together to protect the liver [43, 22].
Tamarind leaf extract reduced oxidative stress and increased antioxidants in the liver of rats exposed to toxins. The extract was as effective as the popular compound silymarin, found in milk thistle .
Extracts from tamarind leaves, fruits, and seeds protected the livers of rats from harmful doses of Tylenol .
All in all, studies suggest that tamarind (especially its leaves) acts as a powerful liver guard by boosting antioxidants and reducing oxidative stress.
4) Helps Dry Eyes
Dry eye disease affects millions of people and can make ordinary activities such as reading and driving difficult .
In a study of 30 people, applying drops containing tamarind polysaccharides reduced symptoms of dry eyes, including burning, trouble blinking, and light sensitivity. The drops also reduced damage to the outer surface of the eye and helped keep the eyes lubricated .
Eye drops containing a combination of polysaccharides from tamarind seeds and hyaluronic acid improved symptoms of dry eyes and reduced damage to the cornea in a clinical study of 48 people .
Contact use is a common cause of dry eyes and irritation. A one-month study of 15 people found that the same eye drops healed eye damage and improved dry eyes and discomfort from wearing contacts .
Tamarind polysaccharides can help those with dry eyes by acting as natural lubricants and preventing damage to the eye.
And you’ll be surprised to know that tamarind eyedrops are commercially available, if you know where to look for them. The talked-about tamarind compound is labeled as “TS polysaccharide.” HydraMed eye drops, for example, contain it.
5) Antibacterial and Antiparasitic
- Klebsiella pneumoniae (also causes pneumonia and UTIs)
- E. Coli
- Burkholderia pseudomallei (causes a life-threatening condition called melioidosis)
In a cell study of 172 antibacterial plants, tamarind was the most effective against E. Coli .
Tamarind is also commonly used to address parasites, including malaria and intestinal worms. Bark extracts were potent antimalarials in infected mice. The bark and leaves also paralyzed and killed earthworms and aquarium worms, hinting at tamarind’s potential against parasitic worms in the gut [57, 58].
Overall, research supports tamarind’s popular use against bacterial and parasitic infections.
6) May Help With Diabetes
Tamarind seeds have potent anti-diabetic effects. In diabetic rats, an extract of the seeds reduced blood sugar levels by 70%, bringing them to those of healthy rats. The extract increased insulin levels and improved the rats’ ability to maintain normal blood sugar levels [3, 4, 59].
The seeds also protected the cells that produce insulin (beta cells) from oxidative stress .
Tamarind bark also reduced blood sugar levels in diabetic rats to normal levels .
Both the seeds and bark help reduce high blood sugar levels by improving the body’s insulin response and restoring enzymes involved in blood sugar control.
7) May Improve Weight Loss
Obese people are often less sensitive to the effects of dopamine and overeat as a way to compensate. Tamarind may also help reduce weight gain by increasing dopamine activity in the brain, which helps control food cravings [42, 63].
An enzyme inhibitor found in the seeds reduced weight gain in rats by causing them to eat less. It increased levels of cholecystokinin, a hormone that stimulates digestion and reduces appetite .
By reducing the motivation to overeat, controlling appetite, and regulating how fat is stored, tamarind helps with weight loss.
8) May Help With Arthritis
Arthritis involves high levels of oxidative stress and inflammation as well as increased activity of enzymes that break down cartilage and bone. Drugs commonly used to treat arthritis come with severe side effects, which means safer alternatives are greatly needed .
Tamarind seed extract protected the cartilage and bone of arthritic rats by reducing the activity of the destructive enzymes. The extract also reduced oxidative stress and inflammation better than the common NSAID ibuprofen .
9) May Reduce Pain
- Decreasing inflammation at the site of the pain
- Activating opioid receptors in the brain, which blocks pain signals (this is how opiate pain-killers work)
This means tamarind may be effective for many different types of pain.
10) May Help With Asthma
In the Indian traditional medicine system Ayurveda, tamarind is used to address asthma. Research is just tapping into this benefit.
In asthmatic mice, tamarind leaves prevented mast cells from releasing inflammatory molecules such as histamine. Mast cells play a key role in many of the effects of asthma such as trouble breathing and frequent cough [68, 69].
Many different parts of the tamarind tree are used to heal wounds, including the bark, leaves, fruit, and pod husks. Although the seeds aren’t as popular, they contain polysaccharides called xyloglucans that have wound-healing properties [1, 18].
For wounds to heal correctly, new skin cells need to grow and move to the damaged area to repair it. Human skin cells exposed to xyloglucans grew and divided more quickly. Scratched skin cells exposed to the xyloglucans moved to close the “wound” properly. Extracts of the seeds also sped up wound healing time in mice by nearly 30% [70, 18, 5].
But don’t worry, tamarind polysaccharides only promote the growth and division of healthy cells. They don’t increase the growth of cancer cells. On the contrary, they have anti-cancer potential [71, 72, 17].
While many parts of the tamarind tree are traditionally used to heal wounds, only the seeds are backed by research.
Excessive UV radiation from the sun suppresses certain immune cells in the skin that are important for protecting against microbial invaders and skin cancer. In a clinical study, xyloglucan polysaccharide applied to the skin prevented this immune weakening from UV exposure. Researchers observed the same in mice [73, 74].
Xyloglucans in tamarind seeds protect immune cells in your skin from too much sunlight, which helps prevent infection and cancers.
12) May Protect Against Ulcers
Tamarind seed extracts protected against ulcers caused by alcohol and ibuprofen by reducing stomach acidity. Plus, it increased stomach-protective mucus. These effects were comparable to the drug ranitidine (Zantac), commonly used to treat ulcers and reduce stomach acid .
13) Anti-cancer Potential
Cell studies reveal that a specific polysaccharide found in tamarind seeds prevents the growth of breast, lung, and mouth cancers by causing programmed cell death. In mice with breast cancer and lymphoma (cancer of immune cells), the same polysaccharide substantially reduced tumor growth and increased lifespan by nearly 50% [72, 17].
Polysaccharides found in tamarind seeds might help activate the immune system to better fight cancer and protect against chemotherapy side effects. But we can’t draw any conclusions, as the research is still limited.
14) Possible Use as an Antivenom
Bites from vipers are especially common in rural India. Incidentally, tamarind thrives in the same region. Viper venom contains a mixture of toxic proteins and enzymes that quickly spread the toxins throughout the body. Current antivenoms are expensive, may overstimulate the immune system, and aren’t always available in rural areas .
Tamarind seed extract blocked the activity of multiple toxins and enzymes in a sample of viper venom. Mice injected with viper venom and then given the seed extract lived up to 6x longer than mice who didn’t receive the extract. The extract also greatly reduced swelling and prevented ruptured blood vessels, which helped the mice live longer .
With more research, tamarind seeds may turn out to be an ideal alternative to conventional viper antivenoms due to their low cost and abundance in areas where bites are common.
Limitations and Caveats
While animal data are promising, clinical trials are lacking to confirm many of the listed benefits in humans.
Tamarind Side Effects & Safety
Because tamarind ripe fruit is high in sugar, diabetics may want to limit its consumption.
Acids found in tamarind fruit can wear away tooth enamel. Drinking water or brushing (but not too soon) after consumption can help remove the acids from the teeth .
The seeds should be boiled before consuming to remove the tannins, which can interfere with digestion (and cause constipation) .
How to Eat Tamarind + Recipe
Tamarind is versatile and easy to prepare. You can eat it alone, add it to dishes, or prepare DIY remedies – depending on the part of the plant.
If you happen to find a whole, fresh tamarind plant at your market or in your surroundings, you can eat the fruits and even prepare a tincture from the leaves. Most of us city-dwelling folks will spot tamarind fruit in Asian supermarkets. You can either buy the whole fruit (in pods), fruit pulp in blocks, or the ready-to-use paste.
If you get the whole pods, here’s what to do:
- Bend the pods to crack them open. If the pods are tough, soak them in water to soften them first.
- Remove the small threads attached to the pods to free the fruit.
- Eat the pulp raw, avoiding the seeds, or prepare a paste.
You will need:
- 14 oz (400 g) tamarind fruit pulp without seeds*
*Usually found in blocks in Asian food stores
- Begin boiling water and remove tamarind pulp.
- Place tamarind pulp in a glass bowl and add enough boiling water to just cover completely.
- Soak for 45-60 minutes.
- Break pulp apart with hands or potato masher to help separate the fibers. Pour off excess liquid if necessary.
- Using a spatula, press the soaked pulp through a colander or mesh sieve over a glass bowl.
- Throw away the fibers that remain in the colander or sieve.
- Transfer paste to a glass container and store in the refrigerator.
- Enjoy your tamarind paste!
You can add it to Asian dishes for a sweet-and-sour kick. It’s especially good in chutneys and Indian sauces.
Dosage for Health Effects
A dosage of 7 mg/lb (15 mg/kg) of the dried fruit pulp was effective in reducing blood pressure and cholesterol. This would be around 1g for a 155-lbs person .
Tamarind seed polysaccharides and hyaluronic acid are combined in Xiloial and HydraMed eye drops .
- Amazon (tamarind syrup, capsules, powder, or paste)
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From its seeds and fruit to its bark and leaves, tamarind is highly valued all over the world for its nutritive, culinary, and medicinal value.
Tamarind may help support heart health, improve diabetes, boost weight loss, and protect the liver, although research is still limited. In clinical trials, tamarind paste protected from fluoride toxicity, while its complex sugars provide natural relief for dry eyes.
But beware: ripe tamarind fruit is high in sugar. In moderation, though, it is a healthy and tasty addition to countless Asian dishes.