Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) or Methias it is more commonly known in India is a leguminous herb grown extensively in the Indian subcontinent, as well as in parts of Europe, North Africa and South America. The leaves are a common ingredient in Indian food, while both its leaves and seeds have been used in traditional medicine across the world for centuries.Egyptians commonly use it to fortify flour for bread, while in traditional Chinese medicine, Methi seeds are used to prepare a tonic for weakness and edema of the legs. In Ethiopia, Methi seeds are used as a traditional treatment for diabetes. In India,Methi leaves and seeds are used commonly in various cuisines across the country, while the seeds have been known for their medicinal value, especially as a galactagogue (lactation stimulant).
Methi has been extensively researched in more recent times, and the studies have demonstrated that it has a number of benefits that were previously not known or properly understood. The main finding has been that Methi seeds have hypoglycaemic (i.e. blood sugar reducing) and antihypercholesterolemic (lipid/cholesterol lowering) activity. These findings have led to a growing interest in Methi seeds, given that some of the fastest growing diseases especially in India are related to high blood sugar and high lipids/cholesterol.
Methi seeds contain 50% dietary fibre by weight, more than half of which is soluble fibre. It is believed that this fibre component is responsible for the hypoglycaemic and antihypercholesterolemic benefits offered by these seeds. Dietary fibre cannot be metabolized by the body and therefore does not contribute to blood sugar. However, fibre slows down the digestive process, thereby slowing down the absorption of glucose into the blood stream, thereby reducing the glycaemic load of a meal.
Soluble fibre accounts for 60% of the total fibre in Methi seeds. In addition to this, the soluble fibre in Methi seeds is very unique in its structure, which gives it enhanced stability and persistent water binding activity in the digestive tract. Soluble fibre binds to cholesterol in the food consumed and prevents its absorption by the digestive system, leading to lower levels through food.
There is another proposed mechanism for the decrease of cholesterol caused by soluble fibre. Soluble fibre, such as the type found in Methi seeds, slows down the reabsorption of bile, which causes the liver to manufacture more. To increase bile production, the liver needs to use LDL cholesterol (“Bad cholesterol”), which it obtains from the blood stream. This leads to a decrease in cholesterol over time, improving cholesterol status and overall health.
Methi seeds also contain a number of other active components, such as saponins, alkaloids and flavonoids, which have been shown to have a wide range of benefits.
Traditional Indian medicine has historically used Methi seeds as a galactagogue, i.e. a substance that promotes lactation in pregnant women. More recently, studies have been carried out that have demonstrated a dramatic increase in the libido of men consuming high amounts of Methi seeds. Both these sets of effects have been linked to the specific saponins found in Methi seeds.
Research into the medical applications of Methi has led to many discoveries with direct application to the treatment and management of diseases. However, the consumption ofMethi is relatively limited due to the strong bitter taste of these seeds, caused by the non-fibre component that contains saponins and alkaloids.
A great deal of research on this humble plant has led to the development of products that circumvent the taste issue – including extracts of specific saponins and debitterized fibre extracts. These developments have taken the medically relevant components of a common condiment, purified relevant fractions and efficiently incorporated them into everyday products such as confectionaries containing Methi fibre to capsules containing specific saponin extracts with specific benefits.