From the tropical hardwood native to Africa — Tamarindus indica — comes the tamarind fruit. This fruit, known simply as “tamarind”, has a wide range of culinary, health care, and household uses.
Tamarind is traditionally used to treat constipation, wounds, and infections — but now scientists have discovered a host of other potential benefits. These benefits come, in large part, from the micronutrients and antioxidants found within this tropical fruit.
Read on for the benefits of tamarind, nutritional considerations, how to use tamarind, and whether or not tamarind can be consumed on a ketogenic diet.
Raw tamarind fruit has a greenish brownish color and comes in a pod-like shape. Inside tamarind pods are green pulp and seeds. The edible pulp is rather sour due to its high tartaric acid content, but becomes sweeter as the fruit matures.
Tamarind has a long history. The tamarind tree is indigenous to the tropical regions of Africa, and its fruit, bark, leaves, and seeds have been used since ancient times as a laxative, poultice (for fever), and topical preparation for wounds[*]. The great explorer Marco Polo reportedly wrote about tamarind on one of his many adventures.
Tamarind fruit contains a high concentration of B vitamins, magnesium, and potassium. It also contains plant-based compounds like epicatechin, tartaric acid, triterpen, pectin, galactose, anthocyanins, and uronic acid[*]. Some of these compounds are likely responsible for the medicinal properties of tamarind.
India is the world’s largest producer of tamarind, and tamarind pulp is often featured in Indian cuisine. Tamarind is also popular in many Mexican, Thai, Spanish, and Caribbean dishes.
Tamarind is best known for its culinary uses — but the plant is also used in medicine, as a supplement, and for various household and industrial functions. You probably won’t find the whole fruit at your local market, but you can easily find tamarind paste, tamarind syrup, tamarind powder, or tamarind extract pills online or in specialty stores.
How can you use these products? Keep reading.
Some enjoy the sour taste of fresh tamarind pulp, but most don’t. More commonly the pulp is used — in limited amounts — to make sauces, pastes, chutneys, curries, spreads, jams, etc. Some examples now.
In India and Pakistan, chefs use tamarind to create tamarind sauce, curry, tea, and sweet tamarind chutney. Tamarind also flavors Indonesian cuisine (a soup called sayur asem), Philippine cuisine (a traditional dish called sinigang), and Latin cuisine.
In the Middle East, tamarind is used to make savory dishes, such as meat stews — while in American cuisine, you can find tamarind in Worcestershire sauce. In South America, tamarind (called “tamarindo”) is popular in sauces, beverages, and dried snacks.
Tamarind seeds can also be refined to make tamarind seed oil. The oil is high in unstable polyunsaturated fat (linoleic acid), however, so it’s not ideal for high temperature cooking.
Tamarind fruit, extract, and seeds aren’t FDA-approved treatments, but nonetheless — they’ve been used for centuries to treat a variety of conditions.
Across the globe, people report success using tamarind fruit — high in laxatives like tartaric acid, magnesium, and potassium — to treat constipation. In Southeast Asia, tamarind pulp is applied to the forehead for fever relief — and in traditional African medicine, tamarind is thought to accelerate wound healing and to assist in clearing bacterial infections[*].
Scientists have recently isolated a number of compounds in tamarind with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties[*]. These compounds, concentrated in tamarind extract, have shown promise in a number of studies.
Tamarind fruit is both rich in micronutrients and in plant polyphenols (antioxidants).
This potent combo is responsible for the bulk of tamarind’s health benefits. You’ll learn about antioxidants soon, but first: the micronutrients deserve their time in the sun.
#1: Rich In Micronutrients
Vitamins and minerals are essential for life. They help you make energy (ATP), create DNA, build muscle, heal wounds, circulate blood, and much more. Name a physiological process. You need micronutrients for it.
In terms of specific micronutrients, here’s where tamarind pulp shines:
- Potassium: 13% of the RDA. Potassium is crucial for regulating blood pressure, fluid balance, and nervous system health[*].
- Magnesium: 23% of the RDA. You need magnesium for nearly everything: energy production, DNA repair, bone health, muscle growth, you name it.
- Iron: 35% of the RDA. Iron helps you create red blood cells that deliver precious oxygen to your bodily tissues.
- Thiamin (Vitamin B1): 36% of the RDA. Without adequate thiamin, your neurons (brain cells) won’t have enough energy[*].
- Niacin (Vitamin B3): 12% of the RDA. Niacin helps you make nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) — an energy-production and DNA repair cofactor that declines with age[*].
Along with these micronutrients, tamarind fruit also contains most of the essential amino acids — building blocks of protein that must come through diet[*]. The total protein content of tamarind, however, is small: 2.8 grams protein per 100 grams of raw fruit.
#2: High In Antioxidants
The most unique benefit of tamarind? Its impressive concentration of polyphenols[*].
Polyphenols are plant-based compounds that serve as antioxidants in your body. You’ll find polyphenols in green tea, red wine, coffee, blueberries, and — yes — tamarind pulp.
Why eat antioxidants? To reduce pro-oxidants, of course.
That’s right. In excess, pro-oxidants — also known as free radicals or reactive oxygen species (ROS) — can cause cellular damage and oxidative stress. In fact, high amounts of oxidative stress are linked to cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, pulmonary disorders, and yes: even aging itself[*]. Because of this, getting your ROS under control may be a useful anti-aging strategy.
Back to tamarind now. One study showed that, in a test tube, tamarind fruit extract was able to neutralize ROS-production by human neutrophils — the most common white blood cell[*]. Other research has shown that the seeds and leaves of tamarind have potent free-radical-scavenging properties as well[*].
#3: Promotes Gastrointestinal Health
Tamarind has been used for millennia to treat gut issues. Only recently, however, has this benefit been documented in a rigorous way.
In traditional medicine, tamarind is a well-established laxative. This is due to its high concentration of malic acid, tartaric acid, and potassium[*].
Tamarind may help with other stomach problems as well. The bark and root have been used for stomach pain, while extract from the tamarind seed has been shown (in rats) to protect against the acid-related damage from stomach ulcer[*]. The seeds, in particular, are very high in the protective polyphenols procyanidin, epicatechins, and tannins.
Finally, tamarind fruit may relax the smooth muscle in the gut, effectively serving as an antispasmodic[*].
#4: Antimicrobial Properties
People have been using tamarind to fight bacterial, fungal, and viral infections for centuries.
Tamarind extract — due to a compound called lupeol — has antibacterial activity against a number of pathogens including: E. Coli, Staphylococcus aureus (Staph), Bacillus subtilis, Salmonella, and pneumonia strains of bacteria[*]. Tamarind fruit also appears to have activity against Candida albicans and Aspergillus niger — both potentially dangerous forms of fungi.
Tamarind may have antiviral properties as well. It’s been reported to combat various forms of mosaic virus — a pestilence that infects a wide range of plants[*].
#5: May Promote Cardiovascular Health
Much observational research suggests that diets rich in fruits and vegetables are protective against heart disease[*]. This effect is likely driven, in part, by the antioxidant compounds found in plants: polyphenols, flavonoids, tannins, etc. The fact that fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals, and electrolytes can’t hurt either.
Tamarind is one such antioxidant-rich, vitamin-stocked fruit. There is, in fact, some experimental evidence that tamarind fruit can improve heart health.
Probably the best study was on hamsters. Scientists fed these fuzzy critters tamarind pulp extract for 10 weeks, measuring a number of cardiovascular parameters before and after the experiment[*]. What happened? The tamarind-fed hamsters had lower LDL cholesterol — a marker for reduced cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk.
The why tamarind lowers cholesterol is interesting. Researchers believe that tamarind extract increased cholesterol clearance (by the liver), increased cholesterol absorption (by the gut), and decreased cholesterol synthesis. The overall effect? Lower circulating cholesterol.
In the same study, tamarind pulp also protected against LDL-oxidation[*]. Oxidized LDL, by the way, are the particles that precipitate the formation of atherosclerotic plaques (the hallmark of heart disease)[*]. Less LDL oxidation is a very good thing.
Tamarind may seem like a superfood, but is it keto? Time to review the nutrition facts.
According to the USDA, here are the nutrients in 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of tamarind pulp[*]:
Yes. Tamarind has a lot of calories, a lot of carbs, and a lot of sugar.
Here’s the thing. The ketogenic diet is a low-carb, high-fat diet. Typically less than 20 grams carbs per day are allowed.
So no: tamarind is definitely not keto.
Fortunately, there are many micronutrient and antioxidant-rich keto-friendly alternatives to tamarind fruit. These keto foods fall mostly into the “starchy vegetable” category, though some (like avocados and blueberries) are fruits.
- Kale: rich in lutein, zeaxanthin, and calcium
- Spinach: rich in folate, manganese, and potassium
- Avocado: rich in vitamin E, fiber, and most of the B vitamins
- Broccoli: rich in vitamin B6, folate, and vitamin C
- Blueberries (moderate portions): rich in anthocyanins, antioxidants (like pterostilbene), and pectin (plant fiber)
And if you’re really craving something sweet, just add high-quality stevia extract to your dish. Stevia is not only a potent plant-based sweetener, but it also has promising anti-diabetic properties[*].
The Takeaway: Should You Eat Tamarind?
If you aren’t watching your carb or calorie intake, tamarind in its many forms can be a sweet, sour, and healthy addition to your diet. A little tamarind paste can add a unique, tangy flavor to your sauce, curry, soup, or chutney.
But if you’re on a low-carb or ketogenic diet, you may want to limit your tamarind indulgence. Tamarind is a high-carb, high-sugar fruit — and eating this fruit could impede your weight loss, cognitive, and other health-related goals.
If you’re worried about losing a superfood in tamarind, don’t be. You can easily find micronutrients and polyphenols elsewhere, and you can find them without consuming the equivalent of 9 teaspoons of sugar!
Instead, stock up on the nutrient-dense keto foods found in this comprehensive post. Enjoy.