Latin American cuisine uses ingredients that are both interesting and flavorful. Epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides1), also called goosefoot, skunk weed, wormseed or Mexican tea, is one of the many herbs that bring life to Latin American cuisine and provide health benefits at the same time.2
What Is Epazote?
Epazote belongs to the Amaranthaceae family of herbs and vegetables,3 which includes amaranth, spinach, beets4 and quinoa.5 Epazote leaves are dark green, long, slender and pointed, and are commonly used in Mexico and Guatemala. This herb may also be called by other names, including:
Hierba hedionda ("stinky weed")
Epazote is a leafy annual plant that can grow up to 4 feet tall, and bears small, seed-producing green flowers. This plant is predominantly found in Central America, where its culinary and medicinal benefits are recognized. You can also find epazote as a “weed” in empty lots and by roadsides in large portions of North and South America, Europe and Asia.6
Health Benefits of Epazote
Epazote has been largely viewed as a medicinal plant, mainly because of its nutrients and potential health benefits. Its leaves are home to dietary fiber and other nutrients, such as:7,8
• Folate — Young epazote leaves contain folate that’s needed in DNA9 and red blood cell formation.10
• Monoterpene compounds such as ascaridole, p-Cymene, limonene and terpinene11 — These compounds may be effective in eliminating roundworm, hookworm and other toxic intestinal worms.12,13 As a preventive measure against worm infestations, native Mayans were said to consume an epazote infusion.
• B-complex vitamins such as pyridoxine (vitamin B6) and riboflavin (vitamin B2) — These B vitamins serve as cofactors in enzyme metabolism, and assist with promoting increased energy levels.14
• Minerals such as calcium, manganese,17 magnesium, potassium, iron, zinc and selenium — In particular, manganese, zinc and iron are used as cofactors for the production of the antioxidant enzyme superoxide dismutase.18
Because of these nutrients, epazote may deliver these health benefits:19
Promote positive gastrointestinal effects — Dietary fiber may help improve the digestive process and increase amounts of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
Improving the efficiency of the gastrointestinal system may help prevent constipation, leaky gut, diverticulitis20 and other conditions.
Plus, epazote was traditionally used to counteract indigestion and flatulence, especially if they were caused by beans21 and/or high-fiber and high-protein foods.
Encourage weight control — Because epazote is high in nutrients and fiber, it may help you feel full for a longer period of time and prevent you from overeating.22
Stimulate antiparasitic effects23 — Active ingredients in epazote may neutralize parasitic worms in the body.24
Help improve immunity — Its moderate amounts of vitamin A, carotenes and antioxidant compounds may promote better immune system health.
Enhance metabolic activity — Epazote contains significant amounts of B vitamins.
These may be helpful in transforming the foods you eat into energy, improving eye, nervous system and skin health, and promoting better immune system and brain function.25
Maintain normal blood pressure levels and support optimal heart health — Potassium in epazote may help relax blood vessels and decrease the strain on the cardiovascular system.26,27
This may aid in reducing the risk for atherosclerosis development28 and in providing protection against heart attacks and strokes.29
How to Use Epazote
Fresh epazote leaves and stems are used in Mexican and Guatemalan cuisines,30 and are often added to soups, enchiladas, egg and potato dishes, moles and quesadillas.31,32 This herb is often compared with cilantro because of its strong taste and smell. Although there is no known “direct” epazote substitute, using Mexican oregano may provide a similar flavor.33
Epazote, apart from functioning as a spice, can be used for medicinal purposes. The herb is a prominent fixture in traditional herbal medicine because of its ability to help eliminate intestinal parasites in humans and domestic animals.34 It may also be useful for alleviating gas and bloating caused by bean consumption,35 as well as intestinal cramps36 and other stomach37 and liver problems.
You may benefit from epazote by making tea using the plant’s leaves and/or flowers. Just be careful, since excessive intake of epazote tea may lead to adverse effects.38
How to Grow Epazote
If you don’t have a source of fresh epazote, you can grow your own. Epazote seeds can be purchased online or at your local garden center.39 Requirements for epazote plants include well-draining, moist soil and full sunlight.40
If you live in North America, epazote plants are annual and thrive best in zones 2 to 7. In warmer zones, these plants are considered perennials. What’s great about epazote is that you may grow it in containers that are around 10 to 12 inches deep,41 no matter what region you’re in.
You just have to remember to bring the plants inside during winter. In spring, you can then plant epazote outdoors once the threat of frost is gone, and night temperatures are above 50 degrees F.42 If you want a consistent supply of leaves, the University of Illinois Extension suggests sowing epazote every two to three weeks.43
Because epazote leaves are aromatic, there isn’t a huge possibility of pest-related issues. If ants become a problem, crush and scatter some epazote leaves around the plant to repel them. However, epazote is an invasive plant that can promote development of way too many seeds. Crushing and destroying seedheads may prevent this from happening.44
The ideal harvesting time of epazote would be right before flowers show up,45 and once plants have been “established.” To harvest the herb, trim off leaves in the morning once the dew dries.46
Cooking With Epazote
Epazote is somewhat pungent. Many describe it as “medicinal,” with a taste similar to oregano, anise, citrus, mint and even tar or concrete. You can use fresh or dried epazote leaves to season dishes,47 albeit sparingly since epazote has a strong flavor. Older leaves tend to taste stronger, compared to younger leaves with a milder aroma.48
When using epazote in cooking, make sure you add them when the dish is almost done, mainly because the leaves’ flavor compounds cannot withstand heat for long periods of time.49 If you’re interested in trying epazote, one simple way is to make a batch of epazote tea. As mentioned previously, consume this in moderation to sidestep the side effects:50
Epazote Tea Recipe
• 8 large stems and leaves of fresh epazote
• 2 quarts boiling water
1. Add epazote to boiling water and let simmer for two minutes.
2. Remove from heat and let steep for another three minutes. Strain and serve.
Although epazote does exhibit some health benefits, pregnant or nursing women must avoid consuming epazote leaves, seeds or oil because of their potential to induce toxic side effects.51
Epazote Is Often Added to Bean Dishes, but Watch Out for Lectins
Epazote is traditionally added to frijoles de la olla (pot beans), a dish made with black beans.52 However, beans contain high amounts of lectins or sugar-binding plant proteins that attach to cell membranes. While not all lectins found in plants and animal foods are unhealthy, consuming excessive amounts may have a negative impact, especially on your gut microbiome.
If you want to use epazote for a bean-based dish, make sure that the beans are prepared and cooked properly. Eating raw or undercooked beans may lead to acute and toxic effects because of a toxin called phytohemagglutinin. To ensure that the beans are safe to eat, take note of these reminders:
• Soak the beans in water for at least 12 hours before cooking. Make sure to change the water frequently. Adding baking soda to the water may help further neutralize the lectins.53
• Discard the soaking water and rinse the beans.
• Cook the beans for at least 15 minutes on high heat or use a pressure cooker.
How to Store Epazote
Fresh or dried epazote may be purchased from Mexican, Central American and Caribbean markets, farmers markets and spice merchants.54 To maintain freshness of epazote you’ve grown and harvested, place the stems in a glass of water. You can also opt to refrigerate them, provided that you wrap them in damp paper towels and place them inside a loose, unsealed plastic bag.
There are two ways to preserve epazote for future use: freezing or drying. To freeze this herb, place whole or chopped leaves in ice cube trays filled with water. If you plan to dry epazote leaves, take whole leaves and keep them inside a sealed container in a dark location. Once you’re ready to add them to your dishes, crumble the leaves finely to release their unique flavor.55
Epazote Adds Some Zing to Your Dishes, but Be Careful of Possible Consequences
Don’t be taken aback by epazote’s English nickname — wormseed — because this herb does a good job of providing flavor to your dishes and even has health benefits too. Although some people may find it difficult to try epazote at first because of its flavor, adding it to recipes is worth a shot.
Just remember to minimize or avoid consumption of epazote if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding because of possible consequences to both your and your child’s health. Furthermore, if you’ll be making a traditional dish combining both epazote and beans, follow preventive measures to reduce the amounts of harmful lectins that you may end up consuming.