Tigernuts, their cultivation and properties have a distant origin that dates back to ancient civilizations. Egyptians consumed them; different documents and archaeological findings testify to this. The most famous is from the father of botany, Theophrastus, he included them in his catalogue of edible plants, dating from the fourth century BC. Although it was thought for a long time that this might be the first documented reference to tigernuts, recent studies from the University of Oxford state that a much more primitive hominid, the Nutcracker Man, consumed them in large amounts and link the development of the brain to the starch provided by this tuber (and not a nut as generally thought).
In addition to these prehistoric references, there are many more that can be found in ancient Persia and the Arab world. Oriental writings also refer to a species of fruit whose characteristics resemble tigernuts. In any case we can set the origin of tigernut cultivation, as we know it, to some 3,000 years ago. Throughout this time, humans have used it as an energy source; modifying it and extracting its milk, horchata, or eating the tuber directly. We can also confirm that it was the Arab civilisation who brought them to Spain in the eighth century approximately.
Three millennia later
Tigernuts continue to be cultivated and consumed today, but the lack of knowledge on their nutritional properties has meant that only those looking for information and who have a specific interest in the dietary value of what they eat include them in their daily diet.
The Cyperus esculentus, also known as tigernut sedge is grown in many parts of the world and although not strictly necessary, it has traditionally been sown in sandy areas near the sea. Straw, animal manure and sand are the sustenance this grass needs to grow and produce tigernuts.
Many products are made from tigernuts – from traditional horchata, made with the milk that is extracted when they are squeezed, to tigernut beer (or chufa beer) and energy bars made from a concentrate of the ground tuber. In contrast to the norm, the tigernut’s quality increases the more fat it contains, as the fat, together with the starch, becomes sugar after the drying period and gives the tigernut its sweet flavour as well as converting it into an important source of energy for our body.
An all-terrain tuber
The tigernut cultivation process has changed over recent decades. At present, the sowing period begins in the months of February and March; it used to be done during the first days of summer. Because of this change, the tigernut spends much more time underground, some eight months in total, and that strengthens its properties.
While this tuber produces a better quality when the weather, terrain and water are ideal, it is in fact a grass, and therefore able to survive and bear fruit in virtually any type of terrain.
Adverse conditions can undermine the quantity produced or vary its quality, but the plant will be able to continue to grow and bear fruit.
In central and northern Europe, ground tigernut has started to become a food of reference and an increasing number of people include it in their daily diet, as nourishment that provides healthy energy.
The harvesting of this tuber is done with machines, which has increased production. Once gathered they should be left to dry for three months, protected from rain and any possible extreme weather, usually in a warehouse. After this time, the tubers will be at their best, ready to be transformed into horchata or any other product derived from tigernut.
A source of health
We know that ancient civilizations were aware of its properties and of the positive health benefits consumption this small tuber, produced by a herbaceous plant commonly known as tigernut sedge, has on the body. Its value as an energy source has been accredited and demonstrated, however the tigernut has many other characteristics, some of which are the reason for its survival to the present day – its collection process has been a complicated and costly one for centuries.
Pure carbohydrates, fats, fibre and proteins concentrate a large amount of vitamins and minerals. The most abundant carbohydrate in its composition is starch, followed by sucrose; this makes it an ideal nutritional food for people who exercise, as these basic nutrients are able to keep us hydrated. It is also highly recommended for people who suffer from diabetes as it does not contain lactose nor fructose.
Carbohydrates are the main nutrients in horchata – which is the most common way to consume the tigernut – but it has many other components. It contains five of the ten essential amino acids, that is, those which the body cannot synthesise on its own but needs to function properly and which therefore need to be included in our diet. It also contains Omega-9 oleic acid, a monounsaturated acid whose consumption is associated with the prevention of cardiovascular diseases. In recent years this oleic acid has become well known because its consumption significantly decreases bad cholesterol, increases good cholesterol (HDL) and prevents the risk of arteriosclerosis. In addition, some recently published studies have stated that it helps prevent certain cancers, such as breast cancer and acts as a natural anti-inflammatory.
Tigernuts contain vitamins E and C, and due to their antioxidant capacity can also prevent degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s. The benefits of some of its minerals, such as calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium are also well-known, as well as the effect its enzyme content has on digestion: it improves the body’s absorption capabilities, improves digestion, relieves cramps, regulates menstruation, facilitates the removal of fluids and soothes dizziness and headaches. Although iron is not one of its essential components, it is present in its composition and, for example, in a higher percentage than in cow’s milk.
A natural remedy
Tigernut has been widely used in the orient as well as at home because of its healing properties. In traditional Chinese medicine it is used to treat liver and stomach upsets as well as gynaecological conditions. It is also used as a therapy against stress.
But traditional Chinese medicine is not the only medical group to recognise the beneficial effect of the tigernut beyond vitamins and minerals, or the energy it can provide; its high content of terpenes modulate GABA receptors, a type of neurotransmitter, which means that it can act as a benzodiazepine, an anxiolytic medicine.
There are even more positive effects: the tigernut is an ideal food if you want to lose weight, as it can suppress the feeling of hunger. Its high fibre content speeds up the time it takes to absorb food as it transfers through the colon, reducing the total digestion time. Researchers at the University Miguel Hernández in Alicante have stated that – after having thoroughly studied this property – the tigernut prevents colon cancer.
An ideal food
If we make a quick summary, we can conclude that the tigernut is a food that has significant nutritional value: carbohydrates, proteins, fats, fibre, minerals and vitamins that provide our body with the many supplements we need in some cases and, in others, help us prevent disease. In general, we can use the tigernut as an astringent, sudorific, tonic, demulcent, stomach and anthelmintic medicine and to relieve cramps, headaches and ulcers of the mouth and gums.
Most chemical compounds would find it very difficult to compete with this food in terms of properties, which in addition to being natural, a high percentage of its production comes from organic farming and has a sweet and intense flavour. It is not surprising that in recent years its use in the kitchen has proliferated and that its most famous transformation, horchata, is increasingly consumed as a vegetable milk and not only as a refreshment drink.