Nigella sativa — more commonly known as fennel flower — has been used as a cure-all remedy for over a thousand years. It treats everything from vomiting to fevers to skin diseases, and has been widely available in impoverished communities across the Middle East and Asia.
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In a paper published last year, Nestlé scientists claimed to “discover” what much of the world has known for millennia: that nigella sativa extract could be used for “nutritional interventions in humans with food allergy”.
But instead of creating an artificial substitute, or fighting to make sure the remedy was widely available, Nestlé is attempting to create a nigella sativa monopoly and gain the ability to sue anyone using it without Nestlé’s permission. Nestlé has filed patent applications — which are currently pending — around the world.
Prior to Nestlé’s outlandish patent claim, researchers in developing nations such as Egypt and Pakistan had already published studies on the same curative powers Nestlé is claiming as its own. And Nestlé has done this before — in 2011, it tried to claim credit for using cow’s milk as a laxative, despite the fact that such knowledge had been in Indian medical texts for a thousand years.
This isn’t surprising, considering Nestle has a long track record of not caring about ethics. After all, this is the corporation that poisoned its milk with melamine, purchases cocoa from plantations that use child slave labor, and launched a breast milk substitute campaign in the 1970s that contributed to the suffering and deaths of thousands of babies from poor communities.
But we also know that Nestlé is sensitive to public outcry, and that it’s been beaten at the patent game before. If we act fast, we can put enough pressure on Nestlé to get it to drop its patent plans before they harm anyone — but if we want any chance at affecting Nestlé’s decision, we have to speak out now, while its patent claims are still under review.
BACKGROUND ON THE ISSUE
Food giant Nestlé claims to have invented stomach soothing
use of habbat al-barakah (Nigella sativa)
by Edward Hammond
The world’s largest food company, Nestlé, is seeking a patent on the use of Nigella sativa to
prevent food allergies, claiming the plant seed and extract when they are used as a food ingredient
or drug. Commonly known as habbat al-barakah in Arabic, and frequently called “black seed”,
“black cumin” or “fennel flower” in English,1
Nigella sativa is an ancient food and medicinal crop.
The Swiss giant’s claims appear invalid, as traditional uses of Nigella sativa clearly anticipate
Nestlé’s patent application, and developing country scholarship has already validated these
traditional uses and further described, in contemporary scientific terms, the very medicinal
properties of black seed that Nestlé seeks to claim as its own “invention”.
The date and location of domestication of Nigella sativa is not clearly established, but the plant
was certainly under wide cultivation more than 3000 years ago, when it was placed in the tomb of
Egyptian King Tutankhamun. Historical evidence also shows contemporaneous, or earlier, black
seed cultivation in Jordan and Iraq. In addition, wild types of Nigella sativa grow in Turkey, Syria,
and Iraq, suggesting domestication may have originally occurred there.2
In ancient times, Nigella sativa cultivation ranged at least from North Africa across the Middle
East and into South Asia, where the plant has also been used in traditional medicine for 1000
years or more. Today, black seed is sown in its traditional range as well as in more southerly
parts of Africa, in Europe, and elsewhere in the world.
Because black seed is widely cultivated, unlike some medicinal plants, obtaining plant seeds is
very easy. The Nestlé Nigella sativa story is instead about how traditional knowledge has been
appropriated. Thus, although the case is unlike biopiracy cases that involve illegal access to rare
or endemic plants, it shares a common theme of many of those cases: corporations claiming
traditional knowledge as their own in patent applications.
Nestlé’s Claims: Broad and Directed Toward Natural Foods
Nestlé’s international patent publication (WO2010133574), published in November 2010, is
directed towards use of Nigella sativa to stimulate opioid receptors in the human body, thereby
preventing or reducing allergic reactions to foods. Nestlé researchers demonstrated this effect by
inducing an egg protein (ovalbumin) allergy in mice, and then co-feeding the rodents the allergen
and a compound called thymoquinone, which is a major chemical constituent of black seed oil (as
well as the herb thyme). With the addition of thymoquinone to their diet, the mice exhibited a
less severe allergic reaction to the egg protein.
From a food company’s perspective a great advantage of claiming thymoquinone is that it can be
delivered in the form of Nigella sativa seed, which is a familiar food in many parts of the world.
In addition, because it has been widely consumed for so long, it does not require stringent
regulatory review as a drug or as a new food additive. It can also be labeled “natural”, to attract
consumers that seek to avoid highly processed foods or artificial ingredients.
Thymoquinone from black seed has been the subject of significant formal scientific interest since
the 1990s, with many studies focusing on its potential use as an antioxidant (to prevent fat build
up in arteries) and as a potential cancer treatment.
On its face, it might seem that Nestlé has discovered a new application for thymoquinone, but dig
a little deeper, and Nestlé’s claim of novelty vanishes quickly.
Nestlé claims any use of an opioid receptor-stimulating compound to treat or prevent allergies,
specifically thymoquinone and, more specifically, administration of thymoquinone in the form of
Nigella sativa plant material (seeds).3
The type of food allergy of greatest focus is upset stomach
Nestlé claims pure thymoquinone and/or whole Nigella sativa in a huge range of doses. These go
from 0.1 to 90 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day for pure thymoquinone, to up to
50 grams if administered in the form of plant seeds. Thus, for a 75 kg adult, Nestlé claims a daily
dose of Nigella sativa ranging anywhere from 7.5 milligrams of pure thymoquinone, deliverable
in a small pill, to a whopping 3.75 kg of Nigella seed, surely more than enough to satisfy the
Nestlé claims any use of thymoquinone or Nigella sativa for the purpose of mitigating food
allergies (including as an oral or injected drug). However, the patent application is particularly
directed toward foods, including “NaturNes”, a baby food brand that the company markets in
Europe. “NaturNes” is the corporate giant’s “green” baby food product aimed at EU parents
concerned about chemicals and the environment. “NatureNes” marketing materials pledge “100%
natural ingredients”. With the addition of black seed, Nestlé may add product claims about easier
digestibility or decreased incidence of food reactions.
Traditional Use and Developing Country Science
But on the scientific front, thymoquinone’s action on opioid receptors is not a Nestlé discovery.
Existing literature establishes this effect, including a paper in 2000 by an Egyptian pharmacology
and trials in Pakistan using thymoquinone to help recovering drug addicts.5
and 2005, Iranian scientists studied thymoquinone use against petit mal epileptic seizure,
concluding beneficial effects were likely due to thymoquinone’s interaction with opioid
Thus, Western-style science, and developing country science in particular, has already
established thymoquinone’s activity on opioid receptors.
But what would cause Nestlé’s researchers to link thymoquinone to treatment of allergic
reactions? A brilliant discovery by a team of PhD’s in white laboratory coats at Nestlé’s sparkling
facilities in Switzerland? That does not appear to be the case.
In traditional medicine, for hundreds and probably thousands of years, Nigella sativa has been
used to treat digestive ailments. Further suggesting an anti-allergic effect, black seed is also
traditionally used to treat asthma and respiratory inflammation.
These traditional uses are well known, and have led scientists who study traditional remedies from
Eastern Mediterranean, Middle East, and Asian countries to validate traditional medicinal uses of
Nigella sativa by using formal scientific methods. This has resulted in dozens of confirmatory
studies, including studies validating traditional use of black seed for gastrointestinal and allergic
indications that Nestlé claims are its invention. These studies include:
• In 2001, Pakistani scientists tested traditional uses of Nigella sativa to treat diarrhea and
asthma, concluding that black seed extract acts as a muscle relaxant and bronchial dilator,
anticipating Nestlé’s claims.7
• In 2003, in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Egyptian scientists reported that Nigella sativa
oil and thymoquinone protected against stomach lesions in rats, as indicated by traditional
• In 2005, Egyptian gastroenterologists compared Nigella sativa to a synthetic drug for
treatment of allergic asthma. They concluded that Nigella sativa has anti-inflammatory and
immunoregulatory effects that may be useful against allergic reactions.
• In 2008, Saudi Arabian medicinal plant researchers tested a traditional preparation of Nigella
sativa seed used for gastrointestinal problems. Rats given the remedy developed fewer
stomach problems than a control group when they were both given damaging doses of alcohol.
Their conclusion: “The results of the present study… substantiates [Nigella sativa] use against
Abbas AT et al 2005. Effect of dexamethasone and Nigella sativa on peripheral blood eosinophil count,
IgG1 and IgG2a, cytokine profiles and lung inflammation in murine model of allergic asthma. Egypt J
Immunol. 2005;12(1):95-102. 4
gastric disorders in Unani and Arab traditional medicine.”10
11 Another Saudi study in 2001
(among others) demonstrated analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects of black seed oil,12
properties related to controlling allergic reactions.
• In 2005, Turkish researchers conducted a study similar to the Saudi experiment, also
concluding that Nigella sativa and, specifically, thymoquinone in black seed oil, protected the
stomach.13 A 2006 follow-on study concluded that the protective effect may be due to an
antihistaminic effect of thymoquinone.14 (Antihistamines are a primary treatment for allergic
Conclusion: Unashamedly Appropriating Traditional Knowledge
In claiming use of Nigella sativa against food allergies, Nestlé’s scientists have not innovated
beyond what was already known in traditional medicine from Egypt to India and beyond.
Moreover, prior to Nestlé’s claim, researchers in those countries used formal scientific methods to
demonstrate the efficacy of traditional use of black seed to treat allergy symptoms.
Those simple facts, however, have not deterred Nestlé from advancing its claim. In November
2011, Nestlé’s patent application in Europe was published. Other national (or regional)
applications may exist but have yet to be published.
Recently, the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) released a search of scientific literature related to
the application, and found problems with Nestlé’s claim to have made an invention, citing some
of the same research that is noted in this report.15 The PCT opinion, however, is not binding on
national patent offices, and Nestlé may submit modified claims. Thus, while the opinion is a blow
to Nestlé’s application, it doesn’t mean that the claims are dead.
Like well-known biopiracy cases before it, such as patents on uses of neem, Nestlé’s unashamed
attempt to appropriate traditional knowledge reflects an ethical lapse and shows profound
problems with the company’s intellectual property practices. It can be hoped that Nestlé’s claim
will be turned down by patent authorities, but the fact that patent claims over traditional
knowledge that preceded it have result in patents shows that intellectual property offices
sometime share industry’s disrespect for traditional knowledge. Indeed the fact that a corporation
with the resources of Nestlé would pursue a patent on such an obviously pilfered “invention” at
all is indicative of the need to improve patent review standards so that such applications are not
worth filing in the first place.
2008″July;”14(3):”128–134.” 11 Unani medicine, practiced in South Asia, draws from Asian traditions as well as Persian and Arab
medicinal practices transferred a millennium ago. 12″AlNGhamdi”MS”2001.”The”antiNinflammatory,”analgesic”and”antipyretic”activity”of”Nigella”sativa.”J”