By Dr. Mercola
Latin American cuisine uses ingredients that are both interesting and flavorful. Epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides), 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.1,2
What Is Epazote?
Epazote is a commonly used herb in central and southern Mexico and Guatemala. It belongs to the Amaranthaceae family of herbs and vegetables, which includes amaranth, spinach, quinoa and beets. Epazote leaves, which typically end in a point, are dark green, long and slender. Epazote can also be called by the following names in some parts of Mexico and Guatemala:
Hierba hedionda ("stinky weed")
In Peru, epazote is known as paico, a word that comes from the native Quecha language. The word "epazote" is derived from a language called Nahuatl spoken by the ancient Aztecs.3
Epazote comes from a plant that's a leafy annual that can grow up to 4 feet tall and bears very small green flowers that produce thousands of tiny seeds. According to The Spruce,4 the plant is native to Central America, where it has been grown for culinary and medicinal purposes. However, it has spread as a "weed" that grows in empty lots and by roadsides in large parts of North and South America, and even in Europe and Asia.5
Health Benefits of Epazote
- Folic acid: Young epazote leaves contain folic acid that's involved in DNA synthesis and cell division.8
- Monoterpene compounds such as ascaridole, p-cymene, limonene and terpinene:9 In particular, ascaridole is toxic to intestinal worms like roundworm and hookworm.10,11 Native Mayans were said to drink an epazote infusion to combat worm infestation.
- B-complex vitamins such as pyridoxine and riboflavin: These function as cofactors in the enzymatic metabolism inside the body.12
- Vitamin A and flavonoid phenolic antioxidants such as beta-carotene: These substances may act as scavengers against free radicals and reactive oxygen species (ROS).13
- Minerals such as calcium, manganese,14 magnesium, potassium, iron, zinc and selenium: In particular, the body uses manganese, zinc and iron as a cofactor for the antioxidant enzyme superoxide dismutase.15
Promote positive gastrointestinal effects: Fiber in epazote may help improve the digestive process and promote smooth bowel movement. Improving the efficiency of the gastrointestinal system may help ease constipation, cramping, bloating and other conditions.18
Help promote weight loss: Because epazote is high in nutrients and fiber, it may help you feel full for a longer period of time.20
Stimulate parasitic effects: Active ingredients in epazote may neutralize parasitic worms in the body.21
Help boost immunity: Moderate amounts of vitamin A and other carotenes and antioxidant compounds may assist in boosting the immune system.
Epazote's antioxidant activity can also help protect the skin from free radical damage and neutralize free radicals.
Improve metabolic activity: Epazote is known to contain significant amounts of B vitamins. These can be helpful in increasing the strength and efficiency of a person's metabolism, as well as help promote proper development and growth.22
Enhance bone health: Minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, zinc, copper and manganese23 were all found to help boost bone mineral density and combat osteoporosis. This can help your bones remain strong and healthy as you age.
Promote normal blood pressure levels and help maintain heart health: Potassium in epazote can act as a vasodilator that helps relax the blood vessels and decrease the strain on the cardiovascular system.24,25
How to Use Epazote
Fresh epazote leaves and stems are used in Mexican and Guatemalan cuisines, and epazote is frequently found in soups, tamales, egg dishes, chilies, moles and quesadillas.27 This herb, which is often compared to cilantro, has a strong taste and smell, so it can be somewhat of an acquired taste. Although epazote has no comparable substitute, many have found that using Mexican oregano instead of epazote may provide pleasing flavors.28
Epazote, apart from functioning as a spice, can be used for medicinal purposes. Epazote was used in traditional herbal medicine to help treat intestinal parasites in humans and domestic animals.29
It may also be useful for alleviating gas and bloating that people experience because of eating beans,30 as well as intestinal cramps31 and other stomach32 and liver problems. This may be done by drinking epazote tea made from the plant's leaves and/or flowers. However, consuming excess amounts of epazote may be toxic, so it's not often used in contemporary Western medicine.33
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.34 The plant prefers well-draining, sandy soil and full sunlight and grows generously in fields, although it also grows as a weedy invasive plant on the roadsides. Tiny and yellow-green epazote flowers tend to appear in clusters, and these develop into numerous small black seeds.35
In North America, the epazote plants are annual in zones 2 to 7, although they are perennial in warmer zones. You can grow epazote in a container in all regions, although you should bring it indoors during winter. Once all danger of frost has passed and when night temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, you can plant epazote outdoors. Sow epazote lightly by making a one-fourth inch allowance beneath the soil's surface, and keep the plant moist.
Although epazote requires less water, avoid overwatering the plant. As mentioned, well-drained soil and full sunlight are important for the epazote plant. Avoid placing plants in areas where roots will sit in water. For a continuous supply of herbs, restart every two weeks.36
Fortunately, epazote doesn't typically have pest problems, since its aromatic leaves may repel insects. Some gardeners have reported that crushing and scattering leaves may act as an ant repellent too. However, epazote can be invasive because it may prompt an abundance of seeds. To limit and mitigate self-sowing, crush and destroy seedheads. You should also grow the plants in containers and/or away from other plants.
You can harvest epazote at any point after the plants are established. Ideally, pick leaves in the morning after the dew dries. Afterward, air dry the epazote leaves on screens, or gather stems in bunches and hang them upside down.37
Cooking With Epazote
Epazote has a somewhat pungent flavor profile. Many describe it as "medicinal," containing notes of oregano, anise, citrus, mint and even tar or concrete. You can use fresh or dried epazote leaves to season dishes, although use it sparingly since epazote has a strong flavor.38
Older leaves have a stronger taste, while younger leaves have a milder aroma. Because epazote's flavor compounds don't stand up to heat for a long time, the herb is usually added to dishes near the end of the cooking time. If you're interested in trying epazote, one simple way is to make a batch of epazote tea:39
• 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 epazote seeds or oil, both of which are poisonous, as well as the flowering tips of epazote stems. Epazote may cause uterine cramps and potentially cause a miscarriage.40,41
Epazote Is Often Added to Bean Dishes, but Watch Out for Lectins
Epazote is traditionally added to frijoles de la olla (pot beans), especially black beans.42 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.43
- 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
Epazote can be found either fresh or dried in Mexican, Central American and Caribbean markets, farmers markets and spice merchants.44 A good thing about epazote is that you can freeze them. Should you find yourself buying more epazote than what you may need, don't hesitate to freeze the leaves, whole or chopped, in ice cube trays filled with water.45
If you have grown and harvested epazote, keep it fresh by slipping the stems into a glass of water, or refrigerating them wrapped in damp paper towels and placed inside a loose and unsealed plastic bag. If you want to preserve epazote, dry whole leaves and keep these inside sealed containers in a dark place. Crumble the leaves finely before using to release their flavor.46
Epazote Adds Some Zing to Your Dishes, but Be Careful of Possible Consequences
Don't be taken aback by what epazote is normally called in English — this herb does a good job of providing flavor to your dishes and even 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 and/or avoid consumption of epazote if you're a pregnant or breastfeeding woman because of possible consequences to both the mother's and 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.