Who knew that nearly half of all the plants around us are edible? For many, sumac is one of those plants. Sumac berry clusters have been used for thousands of years as both food and medicine. Here are some sumac benefits and how to use it in your own home.
What Is Sumac?
Isn’t sumac poisonous? Nope, not that kind of sumac. There are a few different types of edible sumac. What we call poison sumac looks completely different. Poison sumac is white, not red, and bears little to no resemblance to the edible varieties.
Staghorn sumac has fuzzy red berries, or drupes, and fuzzy stems. Smooth sumac prefers dry, rocky areas and has smooth berries. Then there’s dwarf sumac and sweet sumac. Staghorn seems to be the most common, at least in my area and it’s what’s pictured here.
What Does Sumac Taste Like?
The berries are high in malic acid and vitamin C. They’re tart, like lemon, and astringent, like an unripe banana. Sumac doesn’t have a strong herb flavor, it’s mostly just sour.
A Sumac History
Sumac is a staple in Middle Eastern cuisine. It’s also been used for thousands of years by indigenous tribes in North America. You can get sumac in upscale stores, foreign food markets, or forage it. People around the world use this kitchen spice as both food and medicine.
Health Benefits of Sumac
Sumac is an unassuming plant with a surprising amount of research behind it. Scientists have looked into the benefits of sumac for over fifty years. Natives have used it for even longer. According to Khalil et al. sumac is high in phenols and flavonoids. The plant is also anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and full of nutrients.
Historically it’s been used for a laundry list of health issues and modern research is confirming even more.
Fighting Bad Bugs
As an astringent, sumac tones tissues. It’s been used for diarrhea, hemorrhoids, excess urination, and bleeding. Sumac also has antibacterial and antifungal properties. Sumac’s benefits make it useful for skin health, infections, and wounds.
A 2014 study looked at sumac’s effects on bacteria in the mouth. Not only did sumac fight bacteria, but it also helped prevent biofilms.
Research from 2004 also looked at bacteria and sumac. The herb was effective against all six different strains. Similar to onion, the sumac helped kill salmonella, E. coli, and other bacteria often found in bad food.
Sumac’s flavonoid content holds promise for brain health. Khalil et al. looked at sumac’s anti-inflammatory effects. The researchers found sumac reduced brain and nervous system inflammation. They concluded sumac may help fight against degenerative nervous system disease.
These same anti-inflammatory benefits can have a protective effect on internal organs. A 2019 article in Food Biochemistry examined sumac for intestine damage and failure. They found sumac is a promising treatment for preventing these injuries. Sumac has antioxidants, immune support, and helps prevent cell death. Another 2009 study concluded sumac benefits help protect against organ and DNA damage.
Several studies found sumac helps keep tumors from growing and spreading. A recent 2021 study in Bioscience Reports looked at sumac’s impact on cancer. Researchers found sumac significantly inhibited cancer cell growth and health. Other research has found promising effects on breast cancer.
While drinking homemade sumac on its own won’t cure cancer, it’s worth sipping on.
Skin Protecting Sumac
Sumac also has a protective effect on the skin. Traditionally it was used for wound care. A 2020 article in Antioxidants found sumac plays an interesting role in skin health. Sumac helped inhibit bad cell growth or kill already damaged skin cells. This protected against inflammation and sun damage. Using sumac is a great way to “eat your sunscreen.“
Sumac Benefits for Healthy Weight
Several studies have looked at sumac benefits for cholesterol. A 2018 study in Integrative Medicine found sumac increased good cholesterol. Another 2018 animal study concluded sumac may help protect the heart. High cholesterol isn’t necessarily a bad thing though and low levels can spell trouble.
Results aren’t conclusive though. A meta-analysis later that year found the evidence is mixed. They concluded we need more research to know sumac’s benefits on heart health.
While it shows promise for cholesterol, sumac is also thought to help with insulin levels and diabetes. Turkey has used sumac as a natural diabetes remedy for many years. Researchers have found that sumac helps with diabetes and the issues that come with it.
Sumac also helps with insulin and liver enzyme levels in patients with fatty liver disease. Women who supplemented with sumac lost more body fat than dieting alone.
Sumac can even help with muscle pain after workouts. A randomized trial in Physiology International gave one group sumac juice daily. The sumac group had less pain and better workout recovery compared to their non-juicing counterparts. It also has anti-inflammatory benefits to help reduce inflammation and help with pain.
How to Use Sumac
All of that’s great, but how do we get more sumac in our lives?? Sumac berries grow wild in many places and are easy enough to forage. You can also find the dried berries at certain stores as a spice. Here are some ways to use sumac.
Sumac Lemonade or Tea
- Break apart the berries and soak them in cool water in the fridge overnight. I use about 2 cups of filtered water for every sumac head.
- Strain and sweeten to taste with raw honey, maple syrup, or stevia.
When you need an astringent or want to use it as a supplement, a sumac tincture is a good option. This is also a good way to preserve it past the summer months. Here’s how I make herbal tinctures.
Add It to Food
Sumac is an easy (and tasty!) addition to many common foods.
- Season chicken, fish, duck, or lamb
- Use as a dry rub for grilled and roasted meat
- Sprinkle on top of salads
- Use it in dressings for salad and dips
- Mix some in hummus
- Garnish the top of baba ganoush (a dip from roasted eggplant)
- Mix into pickled salads, like sliced cucumbers and tomatoes tossed with vinegar and oil
- Sprinkle some on cantaloupe or honeydew melon
- Stir into rice or quinoa
- Season squash, Brussel sprouts, or sweet potatoes
- Use on grilled vegetables
- Mix with cheese to make a spread. Feta, cream cheese, and goat cheese are good options.
Have you ever used sumac before? What will you use it on? Leave us a comment and be sure to share this with a friend!
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