While many of us in the West wonder if and when to start our babies on spices, age-old cultures from Mexico to Morocco to India have been doing so with abandon as early as 6 months of age. And the first spice that often makes an appearance in baby's world is cumin.
WHAT IS CUMIN?
Cumin is the dried seed from the fruit of the Cuminum cyminum plant, a member of the parsley family. Cumin seeds are slender little things - brownish in color, oblong in shape and longitudinally ridged. They are used in seed or powdered form depending on the preparation on hand. A whiff of the spice brings up peppery, warm, earthy and slightly sweet aromas - a delicious complement to many meat and vegetable dishes.
TRADITIONAL HEALTH BENEFITS
Cumin has been part of human history for thousands of years and, like most other spices, has been used for its flavor-enhancing as well as medicinal qualities. A favorite historical anecdote is one where cumin was so heavily prized for its love-enhancing effects that soldiers were sent to war with loaves of cumin-flecked bread baked by their wives to preserve fidelity!
Cupid's arrow aside, cumin's other claimed traditional medicinal benefits include:
- Digestion boosting
- Anti-viral / bacterial
- Immunity boosting
- Lactation promoting
- Menstruation / Labor Inducing
- Metabolism enhancing
- Skin brightening (when applied as a paste with water)
- Liver aid and detoxifying
There is scientific evidence for the first 3 ancient claims noted above and also for new bioactivities beyond the traditional realm like anti-diabetes, anti-cancer and antioxidant effects. Fascinatingly enough, digging through the data quickly reveals why cumin has been one of the first spice choices for babies in various cultures for centuries.
Here are 4 science-based reasons why cumin should be a regular part of your babies' (and toddlers' and kids') diets.
1) BOOSTING BABY'S DIGESTION
Studies have shown that cumin boosts digestion by increasing pancreatic enzyme production, specifically amylase, trypsin and chymotrypsin. Amylase breaks down starch and the latter two enzymes process protein.The spice also has antidiarrheal effects. Many a midwife is known to have prescribed a teaspoon of cumin tea (entailing 1 teaspoon of cumin seeds steeped in a cup of hot water for 10 minutes) for colicky or gassy babies. Babies have immature digestive systems and may struggle to break down and assimilate harder to digest foods like lentils and beans, which are tremendously nutrient rich. The addition of cumin boosts digestibility and enhances flavor and as we often like to say, that's a win win.
2) HELPING BABY'S IMMUNE SYSTEM
Cumin activates T cells that make up an indispensable arm of our immune response - they recognize and eliminate foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses. In animals that were immune compromised (akin to babies, one could argue), cumin boosted immune function by increasing the weight of the thymus and spleen. Trials on humans remain to be conducted but several studies in animals combined with ancient anecdotal evidence suggests that regular intake of cumin can render our immune systems more robust to fight off infections.
3) ANTI-BACTERIAL / FUNGAL
Not only does cumin enhance our immunity but it also directly kills bacteria and fungi thanks to the compound cuminaldehyde, which is anti-bacterial against a range of pathogenic bugs. Cumin has the ability to disrupt stubborn, drug-resistant bacterial colonies called biofilms and demonstrates anti-fungal activity against animal and human fungal pathogens. Babies explore their new worlds through their mouths, becoming friendly with all sorts of bacteria, both good and bad! Consistent antibacterial action through cumin (and other spices!) in their food is definitely a good thing, we reckon.
For a spice used in small quantities, cumin contains meaningful amounts of iron - 1 teaspoon of cumin seeds (about 1/2 teaspoon ground) has 1.4 mg or about 12% of the daily recommended intake for babies from 7-12 months of age. Up to 6 months, babies have adequate iron stores inherited from mommy and obtained through breast milk or iron-fortified formula. After 6 months, babies' iron stores need to be maintained through their diet. Cumin is a solid non-heme (plant versus animal based) source of iron that can make for a flavorful and healthy addition to baby's diet. To enhance the bioavailability of iron from non-heme sources, it's best to pair it with vitamin C rich foods as we do in the recipe below.
Cumin pairs elegantly with many vegetables (peas and carrots, beets, green beans, potatoes, cauliflower, eggplant, avocado) and meats like chicken and lamb as well as lentils and beans. It can add pizzazz to plain rice or quinoa and is delectable sprinkled on a sunny side up egg. Here I share a classic recipe for a rice and lentil porridge with veggies (also known as khichdi) which is the first food for babies in the ultimate land of spice that is India.
KHICHDI (Rice & Lentil Porridge with Vegetables)
Khichdi, a rice and lentil porridge, often prepared with vegetables, is a revered food in the ancient Indian medical system known as Ayurveda (translated the Science of Life). The combination of rice and lentils provides all essential amino acids. When made with white rice (stay tuned for my post on my data-driven massive change of heart about brown rice for babies!), the dish is thought to be extremely energizing and healing for the digestive tract and is highly recommended for babies who are learning to flex their digestive muscle. Khichdi also presents itself as a canvas for various vegetables rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. The addition of spices like turmeric and cumin boosts the antioxidant content and augments the digestibility of the lentils, although one typically uses skinned yellow or red lentils for babies, which are easier to digest anyway. All of these factors make khichdi a great addition to baby's meal plan, elevating it with science and flavor.
6 baby servings (can be frozen for later use)
1/2 cup white rice
1/4 cup red or yellow lentils
1 tablespoon coconut oil
1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 cup peeled and chopped carrots
1/4 cup peeled and chopped zucchini
1/4 teaspoon finely chopped ginger
2 black peppercorns
1 whole clove
3 cups water
Wash the lentils a few times and soak for 1-3 hours to reduce phytic acid (an anti-nutrient that inhibits absorption of certain minerals like zinc) and discard the water. Wash the rice a few times and drain.
In a pot for which you have a lid, heat the oil on medium high flame until shimmering. Add the cumin seeds and wait for them to start crackling, 30-60 seconds. Add the rice, lentils, veggies (feel free to use whatever you like - cauliflower, eggplant, spinach, green beans are all fair game), ginger, peppercorns, clove and turmeric and sauté for 30 seconds until well mixed and coated with oil. Add the water and bring to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer and cook covered for 30 minutes, checking every 10 minutes to make sure the mixture hasn't dried out, adding a bit more water if so. At the end of 30 minutes, the lentils should have disintegrated and the dish should have the consistency of a liquid porridge. If using a pressure cooker, reduce cooking time to 10 minutes after 1-2 whistles on high heat. Once cooked, pick out the peppercorns and clove, mash lightly or blend and serve. Older kids can enjoy it with texture and some salt. It's also the perfect food for an upset stomach, even for adults!
For more inspiration on cumin for babies, toddlers, kids and the family table, check out some of our most popular recipes below.