If you live in Ghana or Nigeria, you know exactly what “atadwe” are. Aside from being a common snack food, Ghanaian men believe they help them last longer in bed and boost sperm count, along with other fertility perks (more on those in a minute).
If you live in the US or Canada, or even across the pond in the UK or France, you probably have no idea what they are. While not yet sold at major retailers like Walmart and Tesco, they may soon be given the surging popularity of this superfood.
What are tiger nuts?
Despite their name, tiger nuts are not nuts. They are marble-sized tubers which grows underground, like potatoes. They come from a grass in the sedge family. It can be found growing wild throughout Africa, the Middle East, India, and Southern Europe.
When found in the fields of other crops, farmers despise them because they’re a weed that wreaks havoc.
When intentionally cultivated, most are used to make a dairy-free beverage. In western Africa, it’s called atadwe milk. In Spain, it’s called horchata de chufa.
In addition to milk, tiger nuts are commonly dried and roasted with honey. Less commonly, they are consumed raw. When ground as a flour, the functions of tiger nut include making dairy-free yogurt, ice cream, and even bread. Non-food uses include fuel for cooking and fish bait.
Why are tiger nuts called tiger nuts?
The origin of their English nickname isn’t clear. Most likely, it’s due to their orangish-brown and white pattern. The colors are somewhat similar to that of tiger fur.
During WWII, they were given to American kids in lieu of candy. Sugar to make candy was rationed and these have a natural sweetness. While tigers have never lived in Africa, which is where most were imported from, it’s possible this wild animal moniker was chosen because it seemed fun and suggested they came from an exotic locale.
The scientific name for them is Cyperus esculentus and other names for tiger nuts include earth almond, earth nut, yellow nut sedge, and chufa (in Spanish). None of these words mean or are similar to tiger, so those aren’t the reason they’re called that.
Their history as food
Tiger nuts are among the oldest cultivated crops.
In the Nile Valley, they’ve been found in tombs which are 6,000 years old. Dating back to 1,500 BC, the tomb of a high-ranking Egyptian official shows his peasants preparing them to eat. Claims that they are a Paleo food source are true, but no one really can say as to what percentage of the human diet they were during these eras and prior.
In the warmer climates of southern Europe where the nut grass grows, there are written records dating to at least the 13th century AD of them being ground up to make tiger nut milk. (1)
What do they taste like?
Whether roasted or raw, tiger nuts taste naturally sweet. Like coconut or almonds. Their fibrous texture is crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside.
With undertones of cinnamon and cardamom, some describe their flavor and texture as being comparable to a lightly sweetened granola.
Because they require a lot of chewing, you can’t eat them fast. That’s probably a good thing.
Even though tiger nuts are sweet, they contain minimal amounts of sugar; 5g per ounce.
Tiger nut milk tastes similar to almond milk and other nut-based dairy alternatives. It has a naturally creamy texture, without needing carrageenan or guar gum. This comes from the high fiber and fat content.
A disadvantage of the milk is that it contains a prebiotic resistant starch, which doesn’t easily blend. While healthy, this can create unpleasant sediment that your tongue will detect. To avoid, the beverage needs to be shaken or stirred prior to drinking.
The milk is also called tiger nut horchata. In Spain where that’s a popular drink, it’s known as horchata de chufa and horchata Valencia (in reference to the Spanish city).
1. Very high in fiber
When their outer skin is intact, tiger nuts have 10g of dietary fiber per 1 oz serving (30g). That’s 40% of the daily value for adults. When peeled, the same serving yields 3g, which is 12% of the DV.
That’s according to the nutrition facts for the Organic Gemini, which is among the largest US brands. Their “nuts” are raw and sun-dried.
2. Fewer calories than real nuts
The best nuts for weight loss are cashews and pistachios, because they each have around 160 calories per ounce.
A 1 oz serving of tiger nuts has 135 calories, which is 15-20% lower than cashews, pistachios, peanuts, and almonds. They’re over 25% lower than walnuts and 30% vs. macadamia. Their lower calorie count, compounded with the higher fiber, makes them an ideal snack for dieting.
3. Good for food allergies
Tiger nuts are not real nuts and there’s no evidence to suggest they have cross-reactivity with peanut or tree nut allergies. Since they’re plant-based, milk made from them is lactose free. Since they’re a tuber and not a gluten-containing grain, tiger nuts are gluten free.
Can you be allergic to tiger nuts?
Yes but allergic reactions are extremely rare. During the past two decades, only two case studies have been included in the PubMed database. One involves pollen-food syndrome, which is also known as oral allergy syndrome. A person who was allergic to chufa sedge grass pollen experienced a similar reaction when eating tiger nut. That case may have occurred because pollen contaminated the tuber. (2) (3)
4. Low glycemic
The glycemic index and load of tiger nuts have not been formally measured. This is not surprising, because doing so requires at least 10 volunteers who must fast and be monitored for hours before and after eating a given food. It takes time and money and so far, no one has felt compelled to do it.
That said, there are clues from other tuber root vegetables which have been tested.
A 150g (5.3 oz) serving of sweet potato has a GI of only 59 when it’s cubed and boiled for a short amount of time (15 minutes). On an equal weight basis, those have about 20% more sugars and only 1/10th the fiber content of whole unpeeled tiger nuts. Those benefits, along with the typical serving size being much smaller, practically guarantee that the earth almond is a low GI food. (4)
5. May help block absorption of carbs
There might be another way they help promote low blood sugar.
Many oral anti-diabetic medications work because they inhibit alpha-glucosidase and alpha-amylase. Those are enzymes in the small intestine which help with the digestion of carbs and starches. When fewer are absorbed, or they’re absorbed more slowly, lower blood sugar results.
In lab experiments, water-based extracts of tiger nut have been found to inhibit a-glucosidase and a-amylase enzyme activity. If this happens in humans, it would be expected to have a blood sugar lowering effect. Tiger nuts may work for weight loss through this mechanism. Lower absorption of carbs in the small intestine would mean fewer calories are being digested. (5)
6. Contains healthier types of fat
With the exception of the short and medium chain forms, like lauric acid in coconut butter and oil, most saturated fats are believed to be bad for your heart. Or more accurately said, replacing them with polyunsaturated fats may reduce your risk of heart disease. (6)
Tiger nuts contain virtually no saturated fat. Approximately 15% of their fat content is polyunsaturated and the other 85% is monounsaturated. Being a plant-based whole food means they’re also cholesterol free and have no trans fat.
Oleic acid is the primary type of fat found in tiger nuts and oil made from it, followed by linoleic acid and palmitic acid. This profile is very similar to that of olive oil. (7)
7. Supports probiotic growth
They contain what’s known as a type 1 resistant starch. The digestive juices are inefficient at freeing up these starches for absorption, because they’re bound within fibrous cell walls. What can digest them are your body’s natural probiotics in the small intestine. This is why tiger nuts serve as a prebiotic, or food for your body’s natural probiotics.
8. More iron than tree nuts
10% of the daily value per ounce beats most nuts and seeds.
9. Rich in manganese
20% of the DV per ounce for this essential mineral.
10. Moderate source of potassium
With 275 mg per ounce, they offer 8% of the daily value for potassium.
11. Moderate vitamin E content
They have 15% of the daily value per ounce.
Testing using ORAC values or the DPPH antioxidant assay have not been published for tiger nuts, which makes it hard to compare their activity versus similarly used foods, like nuts and seeds.
45-50% of their calories are in the form of fat. When this was isolated in the form of tiger nut oil and tested in the lab, it was reported to have “good antioxidant properties” according to researchers at Xinjiang University in China. (8)
The antibacterial potential of the Cyperus esculentus plant is not well understood. Only a couple pieces of lab research have been published.
One study out of India tested extracts against several types of bacteria which cause infections in humans; Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Salmonella sp, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Proteus vulgaris, and Citrobacter freundii.
All extracts of the tiger nut tuber demonstrated antibacterial activity, with those extracted using acetone and ethanol being most potent. This was based on standard lab tests that measure the zone of inhibition, which is how far out the bacteria can grow before being stopped. (9)
14. May boost libido
As a natural aphrodisiac, men in Nigeria and nearby nations have been using tiger nuts for generations. Many believe that eating them helps with erectile dysfunction (ED), sperm count, and libido.
Formal research on these alleged advantages haven’t been done on humans, but the effect on sex drive and performance has been measured in rats.
Academic researchers from Jordan and Saudi Arabia conducted experiments with “moderately” and “highly” sexually active male rats. There were divided into various groups; one for control and others which received a tiger nut dosage equal to 1-2 g per kg of body weight. This was a daily dose used for 30 days straight.
When compared to the control group, the male rats getting tiger nut flour had more frequent and prolonged sexual activity. Their serum testosterone levels also went up.
The study’s official conclusion was…
“Tiger nut has positive effects on the copulatory behavior of adult male rats.”
The exact phytonutrient causing this was unknown but they speculated that the quercetin, vitamin C, vitamin E, and/or zinc in earth almond may have been contributing factors. (10)
Here’s a look at the nutritional values for the peeled version from Organic Gemini. The values for whole tiger nuts with skin intact are very similar, except the fiber content shows 10g per serving.
With less than 3% of the calories coming from protein, it’s the only macronutrient missing from tiger nuts. The high fat content is ideal for a ketogenic diet. Bodybuilders will benefit from the needed fiber but they should augment this snack with other protein rich foods. Pistachios have a great BCAA profile that complement the flavor quite well.
Since tiger nuts are a rare food allergen, eating them are generally well tolerated among all age groups and ethnicities.
The most likely adverse reaction comes from their high fiber content. Eating too many tiger nuts at a time can cause abdominal pain, bloating, flatulence, diarrhea or constipation. For people with Crohn’s disease and slower digestive systems, an intestinal blockage may occur.
If your digestive system is sensitive to high fiber content, the best solution is to eat peeled tiger nuts because they have 70% less fiber. It’s also a good idea to not eat too much of the nuts at a time; 1-3 ounces per serving is reasonable.
Because they grow in the ground like peanuts, a potential danger of tiger nuts is contamination with mycotoxins. Those are toxic substances produced by certain fungi. Foods that grow underground are most at risk for being contaminated.
When a Nigerian university tested tiger nut tubers (atadwe) for the aflatoxins B1, G1 and ochratoxin A, they detected them in 3 out of 9 snack samples when analyzed immediately after harvesting and drying. After 120 days of storage, all 9 samples were contaminated. By day 150, Aflatoxin G1 averaged 80 ppb and aflatoxin B1 was 454 ppb. Ochratoxin A was in 4 out of the 9 samples, with 10-80 ppb. (12)
If eating tiger nuts contaminated with aflaxtoxins, side effects can include liver damage, liver cancer, and fetal growth restriction during pregnancy. This is why it’s important to buy from major brands using vetted suppliers. Preferably those which are imported from Spain rather than Nigeria or Ghana.
As long as they’re not contaminated with aflatoxins, there are no known dangers of tiger nuts for pregnant women. They are believed to be safe to eat during that time, as well as breastfeeding.
Where to buy
In the US, UK and major Canadian cities like Toronto, Whole Foods is a reliable place to find them. Similar stores like Sprouts and independent co-ops often have the brands Organic Gemini and/or Tiger Nuts USA. Both are trustworthy choices.
Stores like Walmart, Wegmans, and Kroger currently don’t carry them. Neither do Costco or Sam’s Club. They have been spotted at the Canadian warehouse club Bulk Barn.
If you want tiger nut flour and a good selection of the whole tubers raw, sliced, and roasted, you can probably find what you’re looking for on Amazon. For organic tiger nuts, try the original from Organic Gemini. For a gluten free and nut-free flour you can bake with, get their 1 lb bag of flour.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.