Tamarind is prized around the world for its medicinal and culinary value. Many parts of the tree – mainly its fruits, leaves, and seeds – are used as either a remedy or spice. 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 a 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 is 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, some research suggests clinical potential. A complex sugar (polysaccharide) found in the seeds called xyloglucan has unique properties that make it a promising vehicle for delivering drugs [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 a 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 are also believed to help with wound healing and fighting infections.
Wood, Roots, and Bark
Tamarind bark is also believed 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].
- Possible application for dry eyes
- May protect against fluoride toxicity
- Positive effect on heart health
- Preclinical research in a number of other conditions
- Interesting flavor & easy to eat
- Rich in nutrients like vitamin C and iron
- High in sugar
- Effects 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
Tartaric acid found in tamarind fruits can soften stool and act as a laxative. Acetic acid can improve insulin sensitivity and lower triglycerides [11, 12].
Active compounds in the seeds include [13, 14, 15]:
- 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].
Epicatechins from the seeds have antioxidant, blood-sugar-lowering, and anti-cancer effects [19, 20].
The leaves abound inactive compounds, including [21, 22, 23, 24]:
- Essential oils (limonene and benzyl benzoate)
- Anti-inflammatory triterpenes (lupeol)
- Vitamins C, E, B1, B2, B3, and provitamin A
Limonene from tamarind leaves has anti-cancer and pain-relieving effects. Lupeol has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and anti-cancer properties and may help lower cholesterol [25, 26, 27, 28].
Tamarind bark contains sugars, saponins, flavonoids, and tannins .
Potential Benefits of Tamarind
Tamarind is considered safe to eat as food, but supplements have not been approved by the FDA for medical use and generally lack solid clinical research. Regulations set manufacturing standards for them but don’t guarantee that they’re safe or effective. Speak with your doctor before supplementing.
Insufficient Evidence For
The following purported benefits are only supported by limited, low-quality clinical studies. There is insufficient evidence to support the use of tamarind for any of the below-listed uses. Remember to speak with a doctor before using tamarind for health reasons, and never use it in place of something your doctor recommends or prescribes.
1) Fluoride Toxicity
We ingest fluoride through drinking water and dental products. Too much of it has been linked to kidneys, liver, thyroid, and gut damage and 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 may make it easier for fluoride to be excreted [31, 32].
Tamarind leaf added to the diets of rats, rabbits, and dogs protected them from the damaging effects of fluoride exposure and increased fluoride excretion in their urine [33, 34, 35, 36].
Tamarind may even help as a filter. A compound called ammonium carbonate found in the pod shells effectively binds to and removes fluoride from drinking water [37, 38].
Bottom Line? Tamarind can help you detoxify fluoride and protect you from its negative effects while preventing the loss of important minerals.
2) Heart Health
In one small clinical study, tamarind fruit pulp reduced total and LDL–cholesterol levels and blood pressure .
The fruit pulp cut cholesterol and triglycerides levels in half and increased HDL cholesterol levels by more than 60% in hamsters fed a high-cholesterol diet .
In these hamsters, it also prevented the 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 .
In diabetic and obese rats, tamarind seed extract reduces high total cholesterol and triglycerides to levels seen in healthy rats [4, 41, 42].
3) Dry Eyes
Dry eye disease affects millions of people and can make ordinary activities such as reading and driving difficult .
Polysaccharides found in tamarind seeds have similar properties as the mucus proteins that help keep our eyes lubricated and protected [44, 45].
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 .
And in one cell study, tamarind polysaccharides protected eye cells from UVB radiation, which can also cause damage and dry eyes [48, 49].
Tamarind eyedrops are commercially available, if you know where to look for them. The talked-about tamarind compound is labeled as “TS polysaccharide.”
Animal & Cell Research (Lacking Evidence)
No clinical evidence supports the use of tamarind for any of the conditions listed in this section. Below is a summary of the existing animal and cell-based research, which should guide further investigational efforts. However, the studies listed below should not be interpreted as supportive of any health benefit.
4) Liver Function
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 [50, 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 .
Both the fruit and seeds protected rats from oxidative stress and fat buildup in the liver due to a high-fat diet .
5) Antibacterial and Antiparasitic Activity
Many different cultures use tamarind to help with stomach pain and gut issues, which can be caused by bacterial infections [1, 51].
In cell studies, the fruit pulp, stems, flowers, and leaves of tamarind prevented the growth of many different types of bad bacteria, including [29, 52, 53, 54, 55, 24]:
- 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].
Tamarind is a popular antiparasitic agent in some parts of the world, but it has not yet been studied in a clinical setting.
Tamarind seeds have 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 .
7) Weight Management
Tamarind fruit prevented weight gain and increased fat loss in obese mice and rats. Flavonoids in tamarind may help block the production of fat in the body [41, 42, 61, 62].
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 may help with weight loss, but this effect has not been studied in humans.
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) Pain Perception
Tamarind fruit and leaf extracts reduced pain caused by inflammation and heat in mice and rats. Tamarind works in two ways [66, 67]:
- 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)
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].
11) Skin Health
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].
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 [71, 72].
In rats, 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 .
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 .
Cell studies reveal that a specific polysaccharide found in tamarind seeds prevents the growth of breast, lung, and mouth cancer cells. In mice with breast cancer and lymphoma (cancer of immune cells), the same polysaccharide substantially reduced tumor growth and increased lifespan by nearly 50% [75, 17].
It also increased the tumor-fighting effect of chemotherapy and prevented side effects on red blood cells and the immune system .
The relevance of these animal and cell studies to human cancers is unknown.
Limitations and Caveats
While animal data are promising, clinical trials are lacking to confirm many of the listed benefits in humans.
Side Effects & Safety
Tamarind fruit and seeds are considered very safe to eat as food. No side effects have been recorded, even in very large amounts [76, 77].
Because tamarind ripe fruit is high in sugar, people with diabetes may want to limit their consumption.
The 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 .
Chewing the seeds every day is linked to collagen build up in the connective tissue of the mouth, causing pain and loss of taste .
The seeds should be boiled before consuming to remove the tannins, which can interfere with digestion (and cause constipation) .
There have been multiple cases of lead poisoning and contamination from imported tamarind products (Mexico and the Philippines). Make sure you purchase from a reputable source [81, 82].
Tamarind seeds and bark can reduce blood sugar levels. The combination with blood sugar-lowering drugs may further lower blood sugar [3, 4, 59, 60].
Tamarind fruit can increase the absorption of ibuprofen and aspirin [83, 84].
To avoid adverse effects or unexpected interactions, ask your doctor if there is any reason you shouldn’t eat tamarind.
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!
Tamarind paste can be added to many Asian dishes for a sweet-and-sour kick. It’s especially good in chutneys and Indian sauces.
There is no safe and effective dose of tamarind because no sufficiently powered study has been conducted to find one. However, clinical studies have found benefits associated with certain doses.
A dosage of 7 mg/lb (15 mg/kg) of the dried fruit pulp reduced blood pressure and cholesterol. This would be around 1g for a 155-lbs person .
For protection against fluoride toxicity, 10g/day of tamarind paste was used [31, 32].
Tamarind seed polysaccharides and hyaluronic acid are combined in Xiloial and HydraMed eye drops .
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. In clinical trials, tamarind paste protected from fluoride toxicity and reduced cholesterol, while its complex sugars may provide natural relief for dry eyes.
Ripe tamarind fruit is high in sugar. In moderation, however, it is a healthy and tasty addition to countless Asian dishes.