Back in the days of the Roman Empire, there was a substance used to cure health problems ranging from respiratory troubles to hysteria. Today, it’s still used in modern herbalism for treating hysteria, some nervous conditions, as well as bronchitis, asthma and whooping cough. It’s called asafoetida, and it’s an antispasmodic, carminative, expectorant, natural laxative and sedative.
What is asafoetida? It’s a hard, resinous gum derived from a perennial fennel plant that’s grayish-white when fresh but darkens with age to yellow, red and eventually brown. Asafoetida comes from the dried sap extracted from the stem and roots of a plant species that belongs to the carrot family and is used as a spice. The resin is difficult to grate and is traditionally crushed between stones or with a hammer. Today, the most commonly available form is compounded asafoetida, a fine powder containing 30 percent asafoetida resin along with rice flour and gum arabic.
A crucial ingredient in Indian vegetarian cooking, asafoetida is typically combined with legumes like lentils and dishes featuring vegetables like cauliflower. When used in cooking, it evokes a flavor similar to an onion or a leek. Medicinally speaking, there is some scientific evidence that the chemicals in asafoetida might even help treat irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which now affects over 10 percent of the population globally.
But that’s not all. This resinous gum has a host of health benefits that I share below.
6 Health Benefits of Asafoetida
1. Asthma Relief
As a potent respiratory stimulant and expectorant, asafoetida helps release phlegm and relieve chest congestion naturally. It’s used in traditional medicine for asthma, whooping cough and bronchitis. The volatile oil in the asafoetida gum is eliminated through the lungs, which is why it can be an excellent treatment for asthma and other lung-related issues.
2. Lowers Blood Pressure
Asafoetida is a natural blood thinner and can help to lower blood pressure. It’s packed with coumarin, a compound that aids in improving your blood flow and thinning your blood, thereby preventing blood clotting.
Scientists have been able to isolate certain phytochemicals in Ferula species (the source of asafoetida) that have helpful cardiovascular effects. Research using animal subjects has shown that Ferula asafoetida gum extract significantly reduces average arterial blood pressure. The gum extract seems to contain relaxant compounds that have a positive effect on blood pressure and cardiovascular health in general, thanks in part to these phytonutrients. (2)
3. Helps Treat IBS
IBS generally causes severe IBS symptoms, including one or more of the following: alternating diarrhea and constipation, intestinal gas, bloating and cramping, abdominal pain, painful bowel movements, mucous discharge, and undigested food in the stool. Asafoetida has been studied and found to be a successful homeopathic remedy for those suffering from IBS.
A 14-week, double-blind study treated IBS sufferers people with asafoetida or a placebo. Results showed that subjects taking the homeopathic remedy of asafoetida improved to a greater extent than those taking placebo. Additionally, asafoetida is specifically recommended for IBS sufferers that experience constipation alternating with watery diarrhea, bloated stomach with a lot of gas, and a sensation of a lump in the throat that’s relieved by swallowing and belching. These symptoms are also typically worse after eating and sitting, during the night, and on the left side, but are relieved by pressure and by motion in the open air. (3)
4. Blood Sugar Control
Animal studies have shown that asafoetida might be an effective and natural way to help keep blood sugar levels in check and maintain normal blood sugar. When asafoetida extract was given to diabetic animal subjects at a dose of 50 milligrams per kilogram for four weeks, researchers observed a blood sugar-lowering effect. The study concluded that this effect is likely due to the presence of phenolic acids, specifically ferulic acid, and tannins in asafoetida extract. (4)
5. FODMAPs Diet-Friendly
FODMAPs stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. These are specific sugars found in food that are not absorbed completely by the human body so they’re easily fermented by gut bacteria and can cause significant gastrointestinal (GI) problems.
Following the FODMAPs diet is not easy but can often help relieve GI issues like IBS. Two key no-no’s on the FODMAPs diet are onions and garlic, which is a bummer, but asafoetida is the perfect pungent spice to replace the flavors of garlic and onion without using the vegetables themselves.
6. Reduces Flatulence
Asafoetida has traditionally been used to expel wind from the stomach. In other words, it’s an antiflatulent agent (gas reducer) that’s used for the alleviation and prevention of excessive intestinal gas. It’s commonly combined with lentils and other legumes just for this reason — to reduce gas post-meal and keep flatulence in check. (5)
Asafoetida Nutrition and Plant Background
Asafoetida, the gum resin much loved in India and Iran, is obtained chiefly from plant Ferula asafoetida. This herbaceous plant is a member of the Umbelliferae family, and the resin comes from the rhizome and root of the plant. Asafoetida is also known as asant, food of the gods, jowani badian, stinking gum, Devil’s dung, hing, hengu, ingu, kayam and ting.
This substance is composed of approximately 4 percent to 20 percent volatile oil, 40 percent to 60 percent resin and 25 percent gum. Pinene, cadinene and vanillin are found in the oil, and umbelliferone, asaresinotannol, foetidin, kamolonol and ferulic acid are found in the resin. The essential oil component of ferula asafoetida contains a variety of odorous compounds with a high percentage of these odorous compounds containing sulfur.
Using a pinch of asafoetida in a recipe will only add about one calorie to your meal without any fat, cholesterol, sodium or sugar. (6)
Asafoetida History and Interesting Facts
Early records indicate that Alexander the Great carried this “stink finger” west in 4 B.C. Asafoetida was used as a spice in ancient Rome, and although it’s not native to India, it has been used in Indian medicine and cuisine for ages. Today, it ‘s used mostly in south and west India, commonly by the merchant caste of the Hindus and by followers of Jainism and Vaishnavism, who do not eat onions or garlic.
The common name “asafetida” is derived from the Farsi word aza, meaning resin, and the Latin word foetidus, meaning smelling extremely unpleasant.
Asafoetida’s shocking sulfurous smell was once thought to calm hysteria, and in the days of the American Wild West, it was included in a mixture with other strong spices as a cure for alcoholism.
Given its strong, pungent odor, it’s surprising yet true that it’s commonly used as a fragrance component in perfumes as well.
How to Choose and Use Asafoetida
Asafoetida will likely not be in stock at your local grocery store, but it’s not expensive and is readily available to be purchased online. You also might be able to find it in person at some speciality stores, especially Indian or Middle Eastern stores. In its raw form, and in most compound powders, it’s gluten-free, but beware of lower-quality varieties that are sometimes diluted with wheat flour.
If you buy asafetida as a spice, it’s key to keep it in an airtight container away from light, heat and air. This also contains its strong sulfurous odor. It’s most commonly available as a powder or granules that can be added directly to whatever you’re cooking. It’s also sold in lumps that must be crushed before using. It’s a very powerful spice and even in its ground state lasts well over a year if stored properly.
Don’t be scared off by its pungent smell (think sulfur) because it will dissipate with cooking. Asafoetida should be used in very minute quantities to add unique character and health benefits to your cooking. It’s typically used in many lentil dishes, vegetarian stews and soups, and pickles. It can also be tasty in fish dishes. Some brave people even used it as a condiment. In terms of taste, it isn’t very pleasant on its own — it’s like a concentrated rotten garlic or onion flavor. However, once it’s cooked, it adds a pleasant onion or leek-like flavor to dishes.
Medicinal asafoetida is available as a supplement in several forms, including tincture and capsule.
Wondering how you can start incorporating asafoetida into your culinary creations at home? Try these super flavorful and tasty recipes that include it as a key ingredient:
Asafoetida Potential Side Effects and Interactions
Asafoetida is considered safe for most people when consumed in the amounts typically found in foods. However, excessive consumption can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and urination discomfort.
It can also be safe for some when taken medicinally but should never be taken by pregnant and nursing mothers or children. It can possibly be life-threatening or cause a blood disorder when taken by children.
When taken medicinally, this spice can possibly cause lip swelling, burping, flatulence, diarrhea, headache, convulsions and blood disorders. If used for extended periods by premenopausal women, it can possibly cause irregularities in the menstrual cycle.
There is no clinical evidence to support dosage recommendations for asafoetida, but traditionally, a daily dosage of 200 to 500 milligrams of the resin is used for medicinal purposes.
Don’t take it if you have a bleeding disorder, epilepsy or blood pressure issues (low or high). It’s possible for it to irritate the gastrointestinal tract so check with your doctor before taking it if you have any gastrointestinal infection or condition.
It’s possible for asafoetida to slow blood clotting so stop taking it at least two weeks before any scheduled surgery.
Also avoid it if you are taking any blood thinners or medications for high blood pressure. Asafoetida has been known to interact with anticoagulant/antiplatelet and antihypertensive drugs.
As always, if you have any ongoing health concerns, always check with your doctor before taking any herbal medicines.
Asafoetida is a hard, resinous gum derived from a perennial fennel plant that’s been used since the days of the Roman Empire as an antispasmodic, carminative, expectorant, laxative and sedative.
It’s been shown to provide asthma relief, lower blood pressure, treat IBS, control blood sugar and reduce flatulence, and it’s FODMAPs diet-friendly.
This spice is a great substitute for garlic or onion, and a pinch only adds about one calorie to your meal without any fat, cholesterol, sodium or sugar.
It’s typically used in many lentil dishes, vegetarian stews and soups, and pickles. It can also be tasty in fish dishes. Some brave people even used it as a condiment. In terms of taste, asafoetida isn’t very pleasant on its own, it’s like a concentrated rotten garlic or onion flavor. However, once it’s cooked, it adds a pleasant onion or leek-like flavor to dishes.