Sumac is a shrub like tree or a tree like shrub that is an invasive plant in many areas. Types that have white berry clusters should be avoided as the white berries are poisonous but the types with clusters of red berry like seeds are safe to consume when made into a tea and they may be dried and ground into a spice. Native Americans use them in a lemonade like beverage and they are ground into a spice which is used in many Middle Eastern dishes and as a table condiment to sprinkle on foods to individual taste. The ground Sumac is mixed with salt or available plain in shaker bottles and is mixed with a few other spices in the blend called za’atar (sesame seed, salt, and thyme or hyssop).
Some of the phytonutrient content and medicinal properties of edible sumac are similar to those found in pomegranate and may be associated with the bright red pigmentation. The botanical name for Sumac , ‘Rhus,’ translated as a foreign word means ‘red.’ Some people may be allergic skin reactions from touching the plant in nature (1) and as a more concentrated tea it has diuretic properties, which can have health benefits to help remove toxins if plenty of additional water is also consumed to prevent dehydration. (2)
“Sumac is used medicinally in Arab countries. Studies on sumac extracts to date have indicated that the plant may be a source of bioproducts with the following bioactivities: antifibrogenic, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antimalarial, antimicrobial, antimutagenic, antioxidant, antithrombin, antitumorigenic, antiviral, cytotoxic, hypoglycaemic and leukopenic (Rayne and Mazza, 2007).” (1)
The lemonade like flavor would be from the terpene limonene and possibly other terpenes found in the plant. Anthocyanins likely give it some of the bright color. It also contains tannins primarily in the form of gallotannins, which are similar to the elligatannins/ellagic acid found in pomegranate, (3), and other aldehydes and beneficial acids that give it tartness including vitamin C – ascorbic acid. (1) Eating a large enough amount on a regular basis may be important for the health benefits from phytonutrients. Research with elligatannins has found them helpful for cancer prevention and somewhat for treatment (4) but a recent study that used a small dose, 900 mg of pomegranate extract per day, found some changes in important genes but not conclusive health benefits. (5) Research on tumor inhibiting properties of sumac found it beneficial during early stages when the tumor is developing rather than as a treatment after it was formed (animal study). (6) Animal based trials in more recent research that found benefits using pomegranate extract used doses that would be equivalent to larger doses, 1 to 10 grams/kilogram body weight per day. The study and amounts used are discussed in this post and the link is in this earlier post. A beneficial substance that we have to make for ourselves, Nrf2 may be involved. Tannins, anthocyanins, and aldehydes were all mentioned as being helpful for helping promote our own body’s ability to produce more Nrf2. The gallic acid (related chemically to the gallotannins, the mango fruit is also a source (8)) is mentioned to help induce apoptosis in cancer cells (cell death) in an article discussing the role of oxidative stress in cancer treatment. (7)
“Gallic acid (3,4,5-trihydroxybenzoic acid, GA), a polyhydroxy phenolic compound, is abundant in natural plants such as gallnut, grapes, sumac, oak bark, green tea apple peels, grapes, strawberries, pineapples, bananas, lemons, and in red and white wine. Its antioxidative DNA-damage action has been well documented . However, gallic acid induces apoptosis in several cancer cell lines by increasing ROS level and GSH depletion .” (7)
That excerpt is from a section titled: 5.1. Anticancer ROS-Generating Compounds from Natural Origin, (7), which also contains information on other phytonutrients and foods that contain them that have been found beneficial for preventing or treating cancer or reducing oxidative stress.
I bought some dried sumac prepared for table use but chose a brand without salt added to it so I could use as much as I want without having to be concerned about adding too much salt. The aroma and flavor are good and the color is very pretty, slightly more purplish than paprika but similar in the bright addition it makes when sprinkled on the surface of a food. It was $3.99 for a 9.33 ounce bottle at a Middle Eastern foods grocery store.
Phytonutrients with bright colors often seem to be associated with health benefits but that doesn’t mean all wild berries or plants are edible. Read guides and know what you’re harvesting before eating it – and avoid private property and nature preserves where it might be illegal to pick anything.
They are so common in some areas that I happen to have picture taken on a recent walk. A discussion with more detail and a close up image taken during late summer is available here: The ‘Lemonade Tree’: It’s Time to Harvest Sumac, EdibleEastEnd.com. (2)
Disclaimer: Opinions are my own and the information is provided for educational purposes within the guidelines of fair use. While I am a Registered Dietitian this information is not intended to provide individual health guidance. Please see a health professional for individual health care purposes.
- Sumac – an overview, ScienceDirect Topics, sciencedirect.com, https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/sumac
- Ronald Halweil, The ‘Lemonade Tree’: It’s Time to Harvest Sumac, Edible East End, August 9, 2012, EdibleEastEnd.com, https://www.edibleeastend.com/2012/08/09/harvest-sumac/
- J. P. Perchellet, H. U. Gali, E. M. Perchellet, P. E. Laks, V. Bottari, R. W. Hemingway, and A. Scalbert, Antitumor-Promoting Effects of Gallotannins, Ellagitannins, and Flavonoids in Mouse Skin In Vivo,
Food Phytochemicals for Cancer Prevention, Chapter 25, pp 303–327Chapter DOI: 10.1021/bk-1994-0546.ch025, ACS Symposium Series, Vol. 546, http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/bk-1994-0546.ch025
- Tariq Ismail, Cinzia Calcabrini, Anna Rita Diaz, Carmela Fimognari, Eleonora Turrini, Elena Catanzaro, Saeed Akhtar, and Piero Sestili,
Ellagitannins in Cancer Chemoprevention and Therapy. Toxins (Basel). 2016 May; 8(5): 151. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4885066/
- Nuñez-Sánchez MA, González-Sarrías A, García-Villalba R, et al, Gene expression changes in colon tissues from colorectal cancer patients following the intake of an ellagitannin-containing pomegranate extract: a randomized clinical trial. J Nutr Biochem. 2017 Apr;42:126-133. doi: 10.1016/j.jnutbio.2017.01.014. Epub 2017 Jan 27. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28183047
- Giuseppina Barrera, Oxidative Stress and Lipid Peroxidation Products in Cancer Progression and Therapy., ISRN Oncol. 2012; 2012: 137289.
- Gallotannins, Science Direct, ScienceDirect.com, https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/biochemistry-genetics-and-molecular-biology/gallotannins