Sumac is a popular ingredient in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines. In addition, people use it therapeutically in herbal medicine practices.
This article explores everything you need to know about sumac, including what it is, its potential health benefits, and how to use it. Sumac is a variety of flowering shrub that belongs to a family of plants known as Anacardiaceae. Its scientific name is Rhus coriaria. Other common members of this family include cashew and mango plants.
Sumac thrives in subtropical and temperate climates and grows all over the world, including various parts of the Mediterranean, Asia, and Africa.
There are more than 200 different species of sumac, all of which belong to the genus Rhus. However, Rhus coriaria — or Syrian sumac — is the variety of people most frequently cultivated for culinary use and herbal medicine. Sumac is characterized by the large, dense clusters of bright red, pea-sized fruit it produces.
People can steep the fresh fruits to make tea, but more often they dry and powder them for use as an herbal supplement or culinary seasoning.
The sumac spice should not be confused with poison sumac. Though poison sumac is related, it’s distinctly different. Poison sumac produces white-colored fruit and can cause allergic reactions similar to those from poison ivy or poison oak.
Sumac is a flowering shrub known scientifically as Rhus coriaria. People use their red berries as a culinary spice and herbal supplements.
Sumac is probably best known as a culinary spice. People have also used it in traditional herbal medicine practices for centuries.
Scientific evidence on the effects of sumac in people is lacking. However, early research suggests it may have potential health benefits.
Contains important nutrients
The full nutrient profile of sumac remains largely unknown, but some research suggests it contains a host of beneficial nutrients. These include fiber, healthy fats, and some essential vitamins.
A 2014 analysis found that nutritionally dried sumac is made up of approximately 71% carbs, 19% fat, and 5% protein. The majority of the fat in sumac comes from two particular types of fat known as oleic acid and linoleic acid. Oleic acid is a type of monounsaturated fat commonly associated with heart health. It also happens to be the primary fat found in other common plant-based foods, including olives and avocados.
Linoleic acid is a type of essential polyunsaturated fat that’s involved in maintaining healthy skin and cellular membranes. A 2004 chemical analysis of fresh sumac fruit found that over 14% of it is made up of fiber, a nutrient that supports digestive health.
There’s very little data on the precise micronutrient content of sumac, but some research suggests it contains at least trace amounts of several essential nutrients, including vitamins C, B6, B1, and B2.
Rich in antioxidants
Sumac is rich in multiple antioxidant compounds. Experts believe this may be the primary reason for sumac’s broad therapeutic potential.
Sumac contains a wide array of chemical compounds with potent antioxidant activity, including tannins, anthocyanins, and flavonoids. Antioxidants work to protect your cells from damage and reduce oxidative stress within the body.
There’s also evidence that antioxidants in foods like sumac may play a role in reducing inflammation. They may help prevent inflammatory illnesses, such as heart disease and cancer.
May promote balanced blood sugar
Some research suggests sumac may be an effective tool for managing blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes. A 2014 study of 41 people with diabetes evaluated the impact of a daily 3-gram dose of sumac on blood sugar and antioxidant levels.
At the conclusion of the 3-month study, the group that received the sumac supplement had significantly improved average blood sugar and antioxidant levels compared with those who took a placebo.
Another similar study asked a group of 41 people with diabetes to take a 3-gram dose of sumac powder every day for 3 months. The sumac group experienced a 25% reduction in circulating insulin, suggesting their insulin sensitivity may have increased as a result of the sumac supplement.
At this point, scientists need to do more research to determine how sumac may best fit into a care plan for diabetes management.
May alleviate muscle pain
A 2016 study gave 40 healthy people a sumac beverage or a placebo to investigate the potential for sumac to relieve muscle pain.
At the conclusion of the 4-week study, the group that received the sumac drink reported significantly less exercise-induced muscle pain compared with the group that received the placebo beverage.
The sumac group also experienced significant increases in circulating antioxidant levels. The study authors suggested this may have caused the observed pain relief.
Although these results are promising, more research is needed to understand how people can use sumac to alleviate muscle pain or support exercise performance in larger populations.
Sumac contains a variety of nutrients and antioxidants that may play a role in lowering blood sugar and alleviating muscle pain.
Potential downsides and safety precautions
Sumac has a good track record for safety, with no adverse reactions reported in available clinical research. That said, because sumac is related to cashews and mango, people with allergies to those foods may want to steer clear of sumac to avoid any potential allergic reactions.
Because sumac may lower blood sugar, it’s also not recommended if you’re taking medications that lower blood sugar. Furthermore, it’s very important that you don’t confuse sumac with poison sumac. Poison sumac, or Toxicodendron vernix, produces white-colored fruits, as opposed to the red-hued fruit produced by the edible sumac plant.
Poison sumac can cause inflamed, itchy hives on the skin. People should never ingest it. Because it may be difficult for untrained people to differentiate between sumac and poison sumac, don’t forage for your own sumac.
Sumac is generally safe but may cause allergic reactions for certain people. Do not confuse it with poison sumac.
People most commonly use sumac as a spice. Like many other culinary spices, sumac can enhance the flavor and color of a variety of dishes. It’s particularly popular in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines.
Sumac has a rich red color, a citrus-like fragrance, and a distinct tart flavor similar to lemon juice. People sometimes use it to make a sweet and sour beverage known as sumac lemonade.
When dried and ground, sumac has a coarse, gritty texture. Ground sumac is great for adding acidity, brightness, and color to many dishes, including grilled meats and vegetables, grains, baked goods, and desserts.
People frequently use it to enhance the flavor of spice rubs, sauces, and dressings. It’s a key ingredient in the classic Mediterranean seasoning blend known as za’atar.
Sumac is available commercially as an herbal supplement. People typically take it in capsule form, but you can also take it as a tea or tincture.
Due to a lack of data, there’s no clearly established dose for using sumac medicinally. That said, clinical research has demonstrated that doses of up to 3 grams per day are safe.
When purchasing any nutritional or herbal supplement, you should opt for those that have been tested for purity and potency by third-party organizations, such as NSF International or U.S. Pharmacopoeia.
Always consult your healthcare provider before adding sumac supplements to your wellness regimen to ensure they’re safe and appropriate for you.
You can use sumac to enhance the flavor of your favorite dishes or take it as a supplement.
The bottom line
Sumac is a plant that grows all over the world. It’s characterized by its large clusters of red berries. People dry and powder these berries for use as herbal medicine or culinary spice. Sumac is rich in a variety of nutrients and antioxidant compounds. Early research suggests it may be beneficial for blood sugar control and relief of exercise-induced muscle pain. However, more research is needed.
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