Fenugreek seeds (Trigonella foenum-graecum) are rich in healthful fiber, alkaloids, and saponins. The fiber turns into a viscous gel in the small intestine, inhibiting carb-digesting enzymes and reducing the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream. Other chemicals in the seeds help the pancreatic beta cells release more insulin and then nudge carrier molecules called GLUT4 to transport glucose into the cells. The end effect is a steady blood glucose level. The seeds also help digest fat by increasing bile secretion.
The small, angular, golden-brown seeds of the fenugreek plant are commonly used as a spice and thickener in Indian cuisine. They not only add flavor and color to food but also texture. What’s more, components of the seeds travel to the pancreas, gut, liver, and fat and muscle tissues and support the in-built balancing systems there. Now that’s the real draw!
About 45–50% of the seed is dietary fiber, of which a monstrous 13% is soluble fiber (galactomannan). You can naturally expect the benefits of a high-fiber food like constipation relief.
The seeds also carry an amino acid called 4-hydroxyisoleucine, alkaloids (including trigonelline), and loads of saponins (based on diosgenin). Together, they make fenugreek a diet must-have.
Why It’s So Great
1. Helps Maintain Blood Glucose Levels
So, you eat. Carbohydrates in your food are broken down into sugar molecules, so your blood glucose level increases. Specialized cells in your pancreas are called to action and release the hormone insulin into your bloodstream. Insulin travels to your liver, muscle, and fat cells and sits on insulin receptors there. As a result, insulin receptors are activated (tyrosine phosphorylation) and glucose transporting machinery (GLUT4) from deep within the cells are transported to the cell surface, where they form gateways. Glucose can now be taken up by the cells through these gateways and be used for energy or stored to be used later. The result? Your blood glucose level is restored to normal.
This happens after every meal, every day. Fenugreek can lend a hand to this system.
- Increases insulin secretion
Fenugreek’s amino acid 4-hydroxyisoleucine directly stimulates pancreatic beta-cells and triggers insulin secretion. So, you have a nudge right at the beginning of the insulin signaling pathway.
- Activates the insulin receptor and positions GLUT4
Fenugreek seeds can influence the insulin signaling pathway all on their own as well, primarily in fat and liver cells. They activate the insulin receptor and move GLUT4 to the cell surface to take up glucose from the blood. 4-hydroxyisoleucine is possibly at work here too.
- Inhibits carb digestion and absorption in the intestines
The dietary fiber in fenugreek seeds forms a viscous gel in the intestines. This forms a physical barrier that limits the amount of sugar and fat that the intestinal wall can absorb from food.
The gel also suppresses enzymes involved in carbohydrate digestion like alpha-amylase, sucrase, and maltase. This again helps minimize the sugar you get from your food, helping avoid sudden spikes in blood glucose.
There are two important points to note here:
One, fenugreek seeds can help maintain a normal blood glucose level in healthy individuals. You don’t have to be diabetic to benefit from them. Two, the whole seed powder has been seen to be most effective in this regard, more so than the seed extract or leaves.
2. Aids in Fat Digestion
Though fenugreek largely opposes carbohydrate digestion, it does what it can to help with fat digestion.
- Encourages the liver to secrete bile rich in bile acids
The liver produces a fluid called bile. Bile carries bile acids that break down the fat in your food into fatty acids. When compared to a number of digestive spices, fenugreek seeds were seen to support this function of the liver the most.
- Enhances pancreatic lipase activity
Pancreatic lipase is one of the main enzymes that break down dietary fat. And fenugreek supports it!
In their raw form, fenugreek seeds can be overpoweringly bitter. They should be pan roasted first to bring out their sweet, slightly nutty flavor.
They lend themselves best to dishes that require longer cooking, like a curry or a pot roast, and can be used as seasoning for savory meats and vegetables. You’ll find that they make other spices seem “fuller,” which explains why they’re a part of the spice mix in curry powder.
And then there’s fenugreek tea. Brew the seeds just as you would any other herb for a herbal tea. There’s also fenugreek fortified flour. If that’s available where you live and you like to bake, you could give it a try.
But pay heed:
- Never have more than a teaspoonful of fenugreek seeds in a day.
- If you are allergic to chickpeas or peanuts, you might be allergic to fenugreek too. In which case, look for other value-adding spices.
- Avoid having fenugreek seeds during pregnancy because they might stimulate uterine contractions.