What is cardamom

Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum Maton) sometimes cardamon or cardamum, is a spice made from the seeds of several plants in the genera Elettaria and Amomum belonging to the ginger family Zingiberaceae 1). Both genera are native to India/Pakistan (known as Elaichi), Bhutan, Indonesia and Nepal. They are recognized by their small seed pods: triangular in cross-section and spindle-shaped, with a thin papery outer shell and small black seeds; Elettaria pods are light green and smaller, while Amomum pods are larger and dark brown.

There are two main types of cardamom:

  • True or green cardamom [Elettaria cardamomum Maton] (or, when bleached, white cardamom) comes from the species Elettaria cardamomum and is distributed from India to Malaysia. What is often referred to as white cardamon is actually Siam cardamom, Amomum krervanh.
  • Black cardamom (Amomum subulatum Roxburgh), also known as brown, greater, large, longer, or Nepal cardamom, comes from species Amomum subulatum and is native to the eastern Himalayas and mostly cultivated in Eastern Nepal, Sikkim and parts of Darjeeling district in West Bengal of India, and Southern Bhutan.

Both forms of cardamom are used as flavourings and cooking spices in both food and drink, and as a medicine. Elettaria cardamomum (green cardamom) is used as a spice, a masticatory, and in medicine; it is also smoked.

Dry pods of cardamom contain volatile oils, phenolic acids, lipids and sterols 2). Both black and green cardamom contain terpenes in the essential oils, with 1,8-cineole and α-terpineol found in black cardamom and α-terpinyl acetate and 1,8-cineole in green cardamom 3). Black cardamom improved alcoholic fatty liver 4), lowered lipids in cholesterol diet-fed rabbits 5), improved glucose metabolism in fructose-fed rats 6) and decreased inflammation in carrageenan-induced paw oedema in rats 7).

It is assumed, but not proved, that the volatile oils are the major bioactive principles of cardamom. Further, cardamom contains unknown amounts of phenolic and flavonoid components that may have biological activity.

Cardamom is a good source of volatile oils, fixed oils, phenolic acids and sterols 8). Phytochemical studies revealed the presence of multiple chemicals, such as α-terpineol, myrcene, heptane, subinene, limonene, cineol, α-phellandrene, menthone, α-pinene, β-pinene, β-sitostenone, γ-sitosterol, phytol, eugenyl acetate 9). In folkloric medicine, cardamom is used as carminative, stomachic, diuretic, antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal and is considered useful in treatment of constipation, colic, diarrhea, dyspepsia, vomiting, headache, epilepsy and cardiovascular diseases 10). Volatile oils in cardamom was found to exhibit analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and antispasmodic properties 11). Moreover, cardamom fruit is used against cardiac disorders, renal and vesicular calculi, dyspepsia, debility, anorexia, asthma, bronchitis, halitosis and gastrointestinal disorders 12). Cardamom also possesses antioxidant, antihypertensive, gastro protective, and antispasmodic, antibacterial, antiplatelet aggregation and anticancer properties 13). High-performance liquid chromatography analysis showed that ethanol extract of cardamom consists of (−)-epicatechin, vanillin, p-coumaric acid, trans-ferulic acid, ellagic acid which have highly anti inflamatory and antioxidant activities. According to the literature review of cardamom, the major constituents of cardamom are α-terpinyl acetate, α-terpineol, 1,8-cineole and limonene, which have potential effects in metabolic syndrome as these terpenes reduced blood pressure in normotensive rats and also showed endothelium dependent vasorelaxation in male Wistar rats 14).

Figure 1. Cardamom pods (green cardamom)


Figure 2. Black cardamom

black cardamom

Cardamom Uses in Food and Beverage

Besides use as flavorant and spice in foods, cardamom-flavored tea, also flavored with cinnamon, is consumed as a hot beverage in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan.

Cardamom has a strong, unique taste, with an intensely aromatic, resinous fragrance. Black cardamom has a distinctly more smokey, though not bitter, aroma, with a coolness some consider similar to mint.

Green cardamom is one of the more expensive spices by weight, but little is needed to impart flavor. It is best stored in the pod as exposed or ground seeds quickly lose their flavor. Grinding the pods and seeds together lowers both the quality and the price. For recipes requiring whole cardamom pods, a generally accepted equivalent is 10 pods equals  1 1⁄2 teaspoons of ground cardamom.

It is a common ingredient in Indian cooking. It is also often used in baking in the Nordic countries, in particular in Sweden, Norway and Finland, where it is used in traditional treats such as the Scandinavian Jule bread Julekake, the Swedish kardemummabullar sweet bun, and Finnish sweet bread pulla. In the Middle East, green cardamom powder is used as a spice for sweet dishes, as well as traditional flavouring in coffee and tea. Cardamom is used to a wide extent in savory dishes. In some Middle Eastern countries, coffee and cardamom are often ground in a wooden mortar, a mihbaj, and cooked together in a skillet, a mehmas, over wood or gas, to produce mixtures as much as 40% cardamom.

In Asia both types of cardamom are widely used in both sweet and savory dishes, particularly in the south. Both are frequent components in spice mixes, such as Indian and Nepali masalas and Thai curry pastes. Green cardamom is often used in traditional Indian sweets and in masala chai (spiced tea). Both are also often used as a garnish in basmati rice and other dishes. Individual seeds are sometimes chewed and used in much the same way as chewing gum. It is used by confectionery giant Wrigley; its Eclipse Breeze Exotic Mint packaging indicates the product contains “cardamom to neutralize the toughest breath odors”. It is also included in aromatic bitters, gin and herbal teas.

In Korea, medicinal cardamom (Amomum villosum var. xanthioides) and black cardamom (Amomum tsao-ko) is used in traditional tea called jeho-tang.

Cardamom Composition

The content of essential oil in the seeds is strongly dependent on storage conditions, but may be as high as 8%. In the oil were found α-terpineol 45%, myrcene 27%, limonene 8%, menthone 6%, β-phellandrene 3%, 1,8-cineol 2%, sabinene 2% and heptane 2%. Other sources report 1,8-cineol (20 to 50%), α-terpenylacetate (30%), sabinene, limonene (2 to 14%), and borneol.

In the seeds of round cardamom from Java (A. kepulaga), the content of essential oil is lower (2 to 4%), and the oil contains mainly 1,8 cineol (up to 70%) plus β-pinene (16%); furthermore, α-pinene, α-terpineol and humulene were found 15).

Table 1. Cardamom analysis

VariableGreen CardamomBlack Cardamom
Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) area (%)
α-terpinyl acetate72.73-*
Energy (KJ/100 g)15571477
Protein (% w/w)10.89.3
Total fat (% w/w)10.31.7
Moisture (% w/w)12.29.4
Total carbohydrate (%)58.473.9

Values are represented as mean of duplicate analysis; * not detected by gas chromatography–mass spectrometry.

[Source 16)]

Cardamom health benefits

Green cardamom has been used since the 4th century BC by Indian Ayurvedic practitioners and ancient Greek and Roman physicians for the treatment of indigestion, bronchitis, asthma and constipation, and to stimulate appetite in anorexia 17); other indications include diarrhoea, dyspepsia, epilepsy, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, ulcers, gastro-intestinal disorders and vomiting 18). Similarly, black cardamom is used by Ayurvedic and Unani practitioners for many ailments including indigestion, vomiting, rectal diseases, dysentery, liver congestion, gastrointestinal disorders and genitourinary complaints 19).

The results of various studies have shown that cardamom flavonoids, which are mainly terpenoids, are responsible for the high antioxidant and medicinal benefits of the spice 20). They also point out to the fact that flavonoids function in different mechanisms 21).

There is no clear literature evidence that intervention with cardamom, either black or green, decreases the signs of the metabolic syndrome. So far, there have been only two clinical trials that studied the effects of cardamom supplementation in humans 22). One such study showed that cardamom supplementation favorably changed the atherogenic lipid profile—such as low density lipoprotein (LDL-C) “bad” cholesterol, triglyceride (TG), total cholesterol—increased plasma fibrinolytic activity, and improved serum total antioxidant status 23). Verma et al’s study 24) reported that consumption of 3 g cardamom powder for 12 weeks by people with hypertension (stage 1) significantly decreased systolic and diastolic blood pressure. Furthermore, the Verma et al 25) study did not show any changes in the blood lipids level in the intervention group. But in another study, even after 2 months of 3 g cardamom powder supplementation, systolic and diastolic blood pressure did not show any significant improvement 26).

Other clinical trial showed that cardamom supplementation significantly reduced blood pressure and improved serum total antioxidant status in subjects with hypertension 27). However, only a few studies have been carried out on the benefits of cardamom consumption by humans. In a randomized clinical trial 28) evaluating the effects of green cardamom supplementation on serum lipids, glycemic indices, and blood pressure in overweight and obese pre-diabetic women – found a reduction was seen in triglyceride (TG) (−10 vs. -4.6%), total cholesterol (TC) (−4.6 vs. -0.4%), and low density lipoprotein (LDL-C) “bad” cholesterol (−6.4 vs. -0.7%). Although that study shows green cardamom supplementation improves some blood parameters in pre-diabetic subjects, its effects are not different from placebo 29). Another study by Verma 30), which was conducted on 30 male patients with ischemic heart disease (coronary heart disease), showed that consuming 3 g of large cardamom (Amomum subulatum Roxb.) powder for 12 weeks significantly reduced atherogenic blood lipids level, including low density lipoprotein (LDL-C) “bad” cholesterol, triglyceride and total cholesterol in the intervention group. Higher content of 1,8-cineole has been accounted for the significant hypolipidemic activity of large cardamom. Indeed, cardamom may have a protective effect on HDL-C level. Further research is needed to clarify the effects of green cardamom in pre-diabetic subjects and in subjects with high cholesterol.

The positive properties of cardamom are mainly due to its volatile oil, which has terpene, esters, flavonoids, and other compounds. The major compounds of the oil are 1, 8 cineole (36.3%) and α-terpinyl acetate (31.3%) 31). 1, 8 -cineole, a monoterpenic oxide, has vascular relaxant, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties 32). In addition, studies show that the health effects of spices are related to their flavonoids component, so similar effects of different spices on blood pressure, glucose indices, and lipid profile can largely be explained by their flavonoids content as well.

It has also been shown that by preventing pancreatic lipase activity, some flavonoids can reduce the absorption of fats 33). They can directly affect the active site of enzyme or by increasing the size of fat micelles (triglycerides), indirectly reducing access of enzyme to substrate 34). The result of some studies on patients with metabolic syndrome has shown foods with high flavoniods content reduce serum triglyceride, total cholesterol and low density lipoprotein (LDL-C) “bad” cholesterol and increase high density lipoprotein (HDL-C) “good” cholesterol. Moreover, flavoniods have an effect on transcription factors such as proteins, Sterol Regulatory Element-Binding Protein (SREBP-1), and SREBP-2 sterol regulatory element-binding, which increase cholesterol and triglyceride synthesis 35).

The role of flavonoids in the prevention of insulin resistance has also been researched. One of the main factors, which results in insulin resistance in adipose tissue is the increase of fat storage in adipocytes, which leads to inflammation. Flavonoids, by reducing fat storage, might improve insulin function in the body 36).

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