Cattail Roots. The Secret Superfood Hiding in Swamps


Cattails are a common wetland plant found throughout much of the world. “31 Cattail Plant Facts: Benefits, Habitat, Importance And More”, Kidadl, 2022. Their edible shoots, leaves, and roots have been an important traditional food source for many cultures. “Caterpillar Health Benefits”, Anonymous, 2022. Recently, cattails have gained attention for their potential health benefits derived from compounds like flavonoids, phenolic acids, and starch.

Nutritional Profile

Cattail roots are nutritionally dense and contain a variety of beneficial nutrients.

A 100 gram serving of cattail roots contains 74% carbohydrates, 3% protein, and 1% fat (Cattail Nutritional Value And Analysis). The high carbohydrate content comes mainly from starch. Cattail roots also provide dietary fiber, with around 4 grams per 100 gram serving.

Vitamin-wise, cattail roots contain vitamin C, vitamin K, thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin (Health Benefits of Cattail, Uses And Its Side Effects). Regarding minerals, cattail roots are a good source of potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and manganese.

Compared to common vegetables like carrots and potatoes, cattail roots have a higher starch content but lower amounts of sugars. They contain more potassium, phosphorus and vitamin K than carrots or potatoes (Cattail Information and Facts). The high fiber and mineral content of cattail roots are nutritional highlights.

Potential Health Benefits

There are several potential health benefits of consuming cattail roots, due to their nutritional profile that includes starch for energy, fiber for digestion, and various beneficial antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds.

The starch content in cattail roots can provide an excellent source of energy and nourishment. According to Lybrate, the fibrous roots contain around 30-46% carbohydrates, mostly in the form of starch. This starchy composition offers a rich source of energy when consumed. The starch can also be extracted and utilized for various purposes.

Additionally, cattail roots are an abundant source of dietary fiber, containing around 4-5% fiber. As per Organic Facts, this fiber content can promote healthy digestion and bowel movements by adding bulk to stool and promoting regularity.

Cattail roots also contain various antioxidant compounds like flavonoids, tannins, and phenols, as mentioned by MTPR. These antioxidants can help neutralize free radicals and oxidative stress in the body, potentially protecting against chronic diseases.

Some research also indicates anti-inflammatory effects from cattail roots. The various antioxidant and bioactive compounds may provide anti-inflammatory benefits, as noted by Lybrate. This can help alleviate inflammatory conditions in the body.

Historical and Traditional Uses

For thousands of years, cattail plants have been an important food source and medicine for Native Americans, especially in the western United States. According to CATTAIL – NativeTech: Indigenous Plants & Native Uses in America, nearly all parts of the cattail were utilized by Native Americans for food, construction and craft materials, and medicinal remedies.

Cattail roots can be harvested year-round. They are high in starch and carbohydrates and were a staple in the diets of many tribes. The roots can be boiled, steamed, roasted or dried and ground into flour for bread and cakes. Cattail pollen was also collected as a protein source and used similarly to flour. Young cattail shoots in spring can be eaten raw or cooked like asparagus.

Medicinally, cattail roots were used to make poultices for wounds, burns, infections, and blisters when split and applied directly to the skin. The mucilaginous gel from inside the stalks soothes injuries and inflammation when applied topically. Cattail leaves were wrapped around swollen limbs or joints to reduce swelling and manage pain.

When foraging for cattails, it’s important to ensure the area is not contaminated with chemicals that could accumulate in the plant. Only harvest from wild, untouched wetlands away from industrial areas. The best time to harvest is early spring when the roots have the highest nutrient levels before the plant flowers and seeds.

Availability and Harvesting

Cattails grow throughout most of North America in wetland areas such as marshes, swamps, ditches, and along the edges of ponds and lakes (1). They thrive in shallow water up to about 1.5 meters deep. Cattails spread aggressively through rhizomes, forming dense stands.

The best time to harvest cattail roots is in late fall after the first hard frost. This cold snap converts stored starches to sugars, improving flavor. Dig near the center of the plant, about 4-8 inches down, using a shovel or trowel. Grab the base of the plant and pull up to remove the entire root mass (2).

Wash off excess dirt but do not scrub. Peel off the outer layer with a paring knife or vegetable peeler. Rinse again. Roots can be eaten raw, boiled, steamed, roasted, or added to stews and soups. They have a sweet, nutty flavor. Try slicing and sautéing in butter or roasting with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Roots can also be dried and ground into nutritious gluten-free flour.



Safety and Precautions

While cattail roots can be a nutritious wild edible, there are some precautions to take when harvesting and consuming them:

Cattails typically grow in marshy areas which can contain contaminated water. It’s important to harvest cattail roots from unpolluted sources to avoid potential toxins. According to the University of Minnesota Extension, only harvest cattails from above the high water mark of ponds to avoid possible contamination [1].

Proper identification is crucial, as cattail roots can resemble other root vegetables. Misidentification could lead to ingestion of poisonous or unpalatable plants. Distinguishing characteristics of cattails include the brown, cigar-shaped head and flat, strap-like leaves [2].

Those with plant or food allergies should exercise caution, as cattail roots may trigger an allergic reaction in sensitive individuals. It’s recommended to try a small amount first to test for any adverse effects.

Risks and Potential Side Effects

Cattail roots have some potential risks and side effects to be aware of if consumed in high amounts. They contain substances that may interfere with nutrient absorption and thyroid function:

Cattail roots contain phytic acid, an anti-nutrient that can bind to minerals like iron, zinc, magnesium and calcium. This makes the minerals less bioavailable for absorption in the body. Phytic acid content is higher in raw cattail roots, so proper preparation methods like soaking, sprouting and fermenting can help reduce phytic acid.

Cattail roots also contain goitrogens, compounds that can interfere with thyroid function by blocking iodine uptake. Overconsumption may potentially lead to thyroid enlargement or goiter in those prone to the condition. Cooking helps deactivate goitrogens in cattail roots.

Overall, cattail roots are safe to consume in moderation as part of a varied diet. Limiting intake of raw roots and using proper preparation techniques can help reduce anti-nutrient content and minimize potential risks.

Recommended Intake

Cattails are not a common food in most modern diets, so there are no defined recommended serving sizes or dosages for consuming cattail roots. However, most experts advise moderate, occasional consumption of cattail roots as part of a varied diet. Since they are very high in starch and carbohydrates, cattail roots should likely be eaten in limited quantities if at all by people with diabetes or metabolic conditions. As with any new or infrequently eaten food, it’s best to start with small amounts of cattail roots and observe any side effects before increasing consumption.

Indigenous groups traditionally consumed cattail roots more regularly when they were abundant and in season locally. But cattails were one part of a diverse diet that changed with the seasons, rather than a dietary staple eaten every day.

Overall, cattail roots can be safely consumed in moderation alongside a variety of other vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, lean proteins, nuts and seeds as part of a balanced diet. But there is no defined optimal intake, and potential side effects may occur with frequent high consumption over long periods.

Comparison to Other Root Vegetables

Cattail roots have a unique nutritional profile compared to other common root vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes, and turnips. According to the USDA, 100 grams of raw cattail root contains 72 calories, 0.3g of fat, 16g of carbohydrates, 1.3g of protein, and 2.6g of fiber. This is lower in calories and carbohydrates compared to carrots (41 calories, 9.6g carbs per 100g), sweet potatoes (86 calories, 20g carbs per 100g) and turnips (28 calories, 6.2g carbs per 100g) (source).

However, cattail roots contain less protein than carrots and turnips, and less fiber than carrots and sweet potatoes. They are a good source of potassium, phosphorus, and vitamin C. Cattail roots have a mild, starchy flavor reminiscent of potatoes. They lack the sweetness of carrots and sweet potatoes. The texture is crisp when raw but becomes soft and chewy when cooked (source).

Unlike some root veggies, cattail roots are considered low risk in terms of antinutrients like oxalates and lectins that can cause digestive issues. However, they have been linked to allergic reactions in some people. Those with food allergies should exercise caution when first trying cattail roots.


Research on cattail roots is still in the early stages. The available evidence suggests that they are nutritious, containing carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and minerals like potassium and phosphorus. Cattail roots have shown potential benefits for digestion, blood sugar control, and heart health in a few animal and human studies (Fruet, 2012).

However, extensive research on cattail roots in humans is lacking. More studies are needed to confirm their health effects and establish safe and effective dosages. At this time, moderation is recommended as part of a varied diet until more conclusive evidence is available.

While promising, cattail roots should not replace medical treatment or proven dietary strategies. Introduce new foods slowly and watch for allergic reactions. Anyone considering using cattail roots for their health should consult a doctor first.

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