A key element in my approach to nutrition is consuming a variety of nutrient-dense whole foods that are as unprocessed and close to the earth as possible, so the recent buzz around tigernuts caught my eye. The name “tigernut” is really a misnomer, because it isn’t a nut at all but rather the tuberous root of a wild grass originating on the African continent. Since tigernuts are not nuts, they are most likely safe if you have a nut allergy.
From what I’ve read, the renewed enthusiasm over these tiny tubers is well-deserved. They are loaded with prebiotics, magnesium and other minerals, and they have an excellent fatty acid profile. They even taste good!
Just About as “Paleo” as You Can Get
Tigernuts (or tiger nuts, as both versions appear) grow much like a potato, in underground clusters knit together by fine root filaments. Under the botanical name Cyperus esculentus, tigernut plants are also called chufa (in Spain), nut grass, yellow nutsedge, chufa sedge or earth almond. They grow primarily in the tropics and in Mediterranean regions, and are a traditional food in Nigeria.(1) If you are curious to see how tigernuts are grown, check out this interesting post.
Tigernuts are one of the oldest cultivated plants in Ancient Egypt. The dry tubers have been found in tombs dating back 6,000 years, when they were used medicinally, including orally, topically and even as enemas. Tigernuts have also been found potentially useful in fighting multidrug resistant Gram-negative bacteria (2), digestive problems and irritable bowel syndrome (3), and may even be effective as an aphrodisiac (this is certainly true if you’re a male rat!) (4).
But tigernuts appear to go back much farther on our evolutionary timeline—in fact, they are probably as close to a true “paleo food” as you can get. Based on the findings of a recent study, University of Oxford archeologist Dr. Gabriele A. Macho suggests tigernuts made up as much as 80 percent of the early human diet:(5)
I believe that the theory—that “Nutcracker Man” lived on large amounts of tigernuts—helps settle the debate about what our early human ancestors ate. On the basis of recent isotope results, these hominins appear to have survived on a diet of C4 foods, which suggests grasses and sedges. Yet these are not high quality foods. What this research tells us is that hominins were selective about the part of the grass that they ate, choosing the grass bulbs at the base of the grass blade as the mainstay of their diet.
Now that you’ve had an overview, let’s take a look at the nutritional profile of these small yet mighty tubers.
Prebiotics, Oleic Acid, Magnesium—What’s Not to Like?
There is much to praise about the nutritional properties of tigernuts, not to mention their taste! Tigernuts are gluten free and allergen free. I found no evidence to suggest they trigger reactions among those with a nut allergy.
Interestingly, the composition of tigernuts is very similar to human breast milk, and this combined with their mild and pleasant flavor may shine some light on their popularity among our Paleolithic ancestors, especially moms trying to keep a hungry brood satisfied. The following nutritional attributes may make tigernuts an attractive addition of your nutritional regimen:(6, 7, 8, 9)
- Starches and Fiber: Tigernuts are rich in starch—but not ordinary starch. These little tubers boast very high levels of resistant starch, a valuable prebiotic (more about this in the next section). Tigernuts are about 33 percent fiber. Gram for gram, tigernuts have almost six times as much fiber as sweet potatoes and more than three times the sugar, yet still have a low glycemic index.
- Fats: Unlike most starchy vegetables such as potatoes, tigernuts are rich in beneficial fats. Tigernut fat consists of 73 percent monounsaturated fats in the form of oleic acid (anti-inflammatory, supporting good HDL), 18 percent saturated fat (also anti-inflammatory), but only nine percent polyunsaturated fat in the form of linoleic acid (pro-inflammatory). This fatty acid profile is very close to olive oil.
- Amino Acids: The principal amino acid in tigernuts is arginine, which optimizes blood flow by helping your body make nitric oxide, which is a vasodilator. Arginine also helps liberate hormones that produce insulin, which is beneficial to everyone, particularly those with type 2 diabetes or prediabetes. Tigernuts also contain glutamic acid, important for neurotransmitters and brain health, and aspartic acid, which is necessary for cellular energy and metabolism.
- Vitamins and Minerals: Tigernuts are rich in magnesium, calcium, potassium, iron, phosphorous, zinc, copper, and vitamins C and E.
- Enzymes: Tigernuts contain digestive enzymes, including catalase, lipase and amylase.
Resistant Starch is Fertilizer for Your Gut
Your microbiome (gut flora) is extremely important to your overall health, with benefits ranging from good digestion and effective immune defenses to good mental health—and those are just for starters. Probiotics are finally receiving their due attention from the media, but the same cannot be said of prebiotics. Probiotics and prebiotics go hand in hand in building a robust microbiome, but it’s important to understand the difference.
A probiotic is a culture of live microorganisms that helps colonize your digestive tract. On the other hand, a prebiotic is what the organisms eat, creating an environment in which they can thrive. Most prebiotics are some form of specialized fiber, typically soluble fiber. This is different from insoluble fiber, which is digestible by neither human cells nor gut flora. Insoluble fiber simply acts as a mechanical abrasive, prompting the release of natural bowel lubricants and speeding up transit time.
Prebiotic plant fibers, such as those comprising tigernuts, contain nutrients that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria over pathogenic forms. These fibers are stable and resistant to the harsh conditions of your digestive tract—in fact, about 90 percent remain intact all the way to the large intestine, while being slowly fermented by the flora in your gut.(10) In the same way that rich organic soil supports the health of its native flora, prebiotics allow your internal microflora to flourish—think of prebiotic foods as fertilizer for your gut.
Modern foods are inferior in quality to those of our ancestors for a multitude of reasons. Because today’s Western diet is overloaded with sugar, toxins and inflammatory fats, our gut environments cater to sugar-loving microorganisms. These bugs create gas and chemical intermediates that interfere with absorption and/or require inflammatory enzymes to process. Together, probiotics and prebiotics help your body flush out these harmful, inflammation-producing organisms.
Besides making your good bugs happy, consuming resistant starch has a number of other health benefits, including stabilizing blood glucose levels, increasing insulin sensitivity and preventing obesity.(11, 12) Resistant starch also increases butyrate production in the gastrointestinal tract. Butyrate is the preferred energy source for the cells lining your colon, as well as playing supportive roles in metabolism, inflammation and stress mitigation.(13)
The best way to consume probiotics and prebiotics is in your food, as opposed to taking supplements. Besides tigernuts, other prebiotic food sources include inulin/chicory root, green bananas and plantains, raw onions and garlic, legumes, and raw Jerusalem artichokes.
What About Tigernuts and FODMAP?
If you’re not familiar with FODMAP, it’s an acronym used to describe short chain carbohydrates and alcohols that are poorly absorbed by the intestines. FODMAP stands for “Fermentable Oligo-Di-Mono-saccharides and Polyols.” For people who are particularly sensitive, consuming FODMAP foods can cause increased gases or bloating beyond what’s produced by normal fiber consumption. If you are among the sensitive, evidence shows avoiding FODMAP foods results in a significant reduction of symptoms. The worst culprits are onions, garlic, and wheat, but there are others.
That said, as with any new food, it is wise to proceed with a measure of caution. Start with just a few tigernuts a day and see how you feel. If no notable gut issues occur (gas, bloating, diarrhea), tigernuts may be a great addition to your diet.
The Best Ways to Consume Tigernuts
Tigernuts have a pleasantly sweet and nutty, almost caramel-like flavor. Although they resemble a rather wrinkly nut, they’re much milder in flavor than most nuts. The only trait you might find objectionable is their fibrousness—chewing them whole is a bit like chewing up the stem of a particularly fibrous stalk of asparagus, or a cinnamon stick. Fortunately, their wonderful flavor makes up for that! They can be eaten raw or roasted.
There doesn’t seem to be many traditional foods made with tigernuts. In ancient times, they were likely consumed whole, snacked on by hunter-gatherers much like almonds or hazelnuts. They are nicely portable, and their substantial mineral content, higher fat content and deep satiation make these little tubers a terrific Paleo-friendly snack.
Recent dietary trends, especially the desire for gluten-free baking substitutes, have given rise to tigernut flour, which is an excellent gluten-free and nut-free alternative. One characteristic of tigernut flour is its suitability as a direct stand-in for wheat flour. Unlike coconut flour, tigernut flour does not require the addition of extra liquid or eggs so it can typically be used 1:1 to replace wheat flour in most recipes. Tigernut oil is also on the market.
You can find numerous tigernut recipes online, but most just involve using them as a replacement for nuts or flours. The only truly traditional recipe is a beverage. Historically popular in Spain, a drink called “Horchata de Chufa” (or in Nigeria Kunnu Aya) is gaining popularity throughout the West. Horchata is made by blending the milky extract of tigernuts with water and a sweetener (typically dates), in the same process as nut milks. You can find many Horchata recipes online, and I’ve provided one below.
Makes about one quart.
- 8 ounces raw, organic tigernuts
- 1 quart filtered water
- 1 Ceylon cinnamon stick
- 3 cardamom pods
- OPTIONAL: ½ cup organic piloncillo or jaggery (You could sweeten with stevia or maple sugar, or another sweetener of your choice, but keep in mind tigernuts themselves are actually pleasantly sweet)
- Place the tigernuts and cinnamon stick in a medium-sized mixing bowl and cover with warm water. Allow to soak for at least 12 to 24 hours, until softened.
- Combine the tigernuts, soaking water, cinnamon stick, cardamom pods and sweetener (if you’re using it) to a high-powered blender. Blend into a smooth paste, adding water as necessary to allow even blending. Allow the mixture to sit in the fridge for an hour, and then spoon it into a nut milk bag, press it through. Add enough water to achieve a drinkable consistency and serve over ice. This recipe makes about one quart.
Mix Tigernuts into your whole-food diet
In today’s busy world, we can never have too many quick and easy pantry items that we can grab in a hurry. If you are grain-free and/or allergic to nuts, tigernuts give you one more option when the vegetable drawer is bare. They won’t spike your insulin or send your blood sugar soaring—and they’ll even make your gut flora happy! If you try them out or find a fabulously successful recipe, please feel free to share it in a comment.