As North Americans embrace herbs and practices from other healing systems, they will inevitably encounter some that are unfamiliar. Most people know little at all about asafoetida, although it was used in European medicine in medieval times. Also spelled asafetida, its history goes back even further in India and the Near East. Does it really offer health benefits?

What Is Asafoetida?

Q. What is asafoetida? Are there any health problems or benefits associated with its use in cooking? It was discussed on “The Dr. Oz Show.”

I remember as a nurse in Georgia in the 1950s, rural children came into our hospital with bags (acifitidy bags) of this disgusting smelling product hanging around their necks.

A Plant Product:

A. Asafoetida is a resin from a plant, Ferula assa-foetida, native to Afghanistan. In India, this resin is known as hing and has traditionally been used to promote good digestion. Home cooks add it to beans or legumes to enhance their flavor and reduce the chance of flatulence.

Is Asafoetida Fetid?

Asafoetida lives up to its name, as it is indeed very stinky. The folk remedy of hanging it in a bag around a child’s neck to protect the youngster from illness might have worked by keeping people away. Drug stores sold such bags as a preventive during the deadly Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. People in rural areas remembered this and continued to rely on them for decades afterwards.

Does This Plant Product Have Antiviral Properties?

Some research has shown that asafoetida has antiviral activity against certain rhinoviruses that cause colds (Rollinger et al, Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, Feb. 5, 2008).  Compounds in this plant product are active against the herpes virus that causes cold sores (Ghannadi et al, Iranian Journal of Pharmaceutical Research, Spring 2014).

Side Effects:

Like other botanical medicines, asafoetida is not for everyone. Some people react to it with digestive distress such as heartburn, nausea or vomiting. Others may develop a headache. Allergic reactions might also be possible.

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  1. Barney

    Parmesan cheese

  2. Stephanie

    My husband and I recently started adding one teaspoon ground Asafoetida below the ground coffee when we make drip coffee. It has greatly reduced the constant flatulence we were enduring!

  3. Dolores J

    I haven’t seen mention of asafoetida since I was a child. We also wore it around our necks in a little bag to ward off sickness. In later years I figured the same thing, it smelled so bad it kept people away from you, hence it kept away germs. It was also crushed in water and we were given a teaspoon of it by mouth. We were also given sulphur and molasses (I forgot what that was for) and they made their own cough medicine.

    When we had chicken pox we were put in the tub with a small amount of tepid water and dry mustard to sooth the itch of the pox. You weren’t rubbed, it was splashed on you, then you were patted dry and Carbolated Vaseline was put on you. It worked, as none of the five of us ever had any scarring and little if any itching from the pox. When I became a parent I used some of the same remedies.

    Of course, now it is hard to find any of these ingredients, whereas before you could readily buy them anywhere in the neighborhood. I am 80 so that gives you an idea of how long ago. I remember reading about asafoetida, calamabra ( I don’t know what that was, but heard it often along with another term) in the novel “Mandingo”.

  4. Margaret

    Fifty-plus years ago, a crotchety old school teacher of mine would stand at the crossing of the hallways, with ping pong paddle in hand for dishing out swats as needed, and admonish us to wear our “asbestos bag” and “sally rag” so as to not get sick and miss school.

    Recently, I realized she was saying “asafoetida” bag. I still don’t know what a “sally rag” is. This teacher may well have remembered the flu of 1918 as she said she rode a mule to her first teaching job.

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