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Black Seed vs. Black Cumin Which is Which?

Black Seed Vs. Black Cumin

Black seed is getting some recognition. Why it took so long, I will never understand. Not only is the black seed a delicious herb, but the oil is highly nutritional and healing. The herb has been used in the Middle East, Africa, and by the Roman Empire for thousands of years. But as all things that recently seem to be making a belated introduction into the New World, there are plenty of misconceptions as to what the black seed actually is. Black seed is being erroneously labeled as black cumin seed and sometimes onion seed. Read on to understand what black seed really is.

My first introduction to black seed came when I was a young teenager. I was learning the Indian culinary arts. Black seed is a common herb/spice used to add an almost oregano like taste to dishes with a peppery bite. It is also used commonly to top Middle Eastern breads. I wondered where this tasty seed had been hiding all of my life. Soon black seed became a staple in my home as we added it to our curries more for its health benefit than for its flavor. My favorite use for black seed today is in a boiled egg curry in fresh tomato sauce with curry leaf (I think I should share this with you one day). Whenever someone is sick we make sure to add black seeds to our chicken broth, too. Black seed oil is a regular part of scalp massages to strengthen hair. My kids even take black seed oil mixed with honey without being told.

Black seed (nigella sativa) looks very similar to black sesame seed (sesame on the left). However, they have completely different tastes and are not interchangeable.

Egyptian black seed oil was one of the first products I introduced in 2000. Wanting to share the natural skin and body remedies of Africa and the Middle East this was on the top of the list. Now that black seed oil is finally starting to show up on retail shelves, like many “new” things, there is a lot of misinformation surrounding what the black seed actually is. Black seed is suffering a bad case of mistaken identity. Black cumin and onion seed are only a few erroneous names. They are not the same and should not be confused for one another.

For better illustration I will turn to my knowledge of Indian cooking, a cuisine I believe to use more herbs and spices than any other. In Indian cooking there are two types of cumin seeds, called jeera. There is the common cumin seed (cuminum cyminum), and then there is a darker, smaller one called kala jeera (bunium bulbocastanum) or black cumin. Cumin, the spice that gives many Mexican dishes their distinctive taste, are also used to make an essential oil. Neither “cumin” nor “black cumin” is black seed. Black cumin IS NOT black seed and although plenty of products now erroneously label themselves as black cumin, the two should not be confused. Black cumin is actually from the plant bunium bulbocastanum, which is in the Apiaceae family. Black seed, which the sought after oil is made from, is actually nigella sativa and not related to cumin at all.

On the front are common cumin seeds. On the top left are black cumin seeds (NOT the seeds that produce black seed oil). On the top right are actual black seed, nigella sativa, which produce black seed oil. Black seed is erroneously being called black cumin. Black seed is not a cumin at all.

Black seed oil, nigella sativa, comes from the beautiful Love-in Mist flower. In Indian cooking the seeds are called kalonji. They are sometimes added whole to Indian curries and are often seen on top of Afghan and Middle Eastern breads. Common cumin which is ground into a fragrant powder and used in many Mexican and Indian dishes is called jeera. Black cumin, which is less flavorful than its cumin relative, is called kala jeera meaning black cumin. Black seed and black cumin come from two totally different species and are not interchangeable in any way, not for health benefits, nor cooking.

When looking for black seed oil make sure that the botanical name is listed as is required by law, and that it states nigella sativa. Black seed oil should always be bought from a very reputable source. Numerous scientific studies have shown that Egyptian black seed oil has the highest therapeutic quality. Most black seed oil commonly comes from India. Freshness and purity varies greatly. Black seed oil is often cut with inexpensive oils. Black seed oil should always be freshly pressed and kept in amber glass out of direct sunlight. The aroma and taste should be very pungent. It is often mixed with honey to make it palatable. In skin care products look for the distinctive aroma to ensure that an effective dosage of black seed oil has been used in the product. Even in soap the distinctive aroma of black seed oil should be present.