Growing to a height of up to 6 ft (2 m), arrowroot is a tropical perennial with clusters of long, thin stems and small, cream-colored flowers that grow in pairs. Once revered by the ancient Mayans and other inhabitants of Central America as an antidote for poison-tipped arrows, the herb is mainly used today to soothe the stomach and alleviate diarrhea. It has also been popular for centuries in the culinary arts and is still used in many American kitchens as a thickening agent. While arrowroot is native to Central America and widely cultivated in the West Indies, it can also be found growing in many tropical regions of the world, including Southeast Asia, South Africa, Australia, and in Florida in the United States. The Latin genus Maranta was derived from the name of an Italian doctor, Bartommeo Maranto.
Arrowroot, which belongs to the Marantaceae plant family, is widely considered an easily digested and nutritious starch. The herb is extracted from the fleshy roots, called rhizomes, of the arrowroot plant through an elaborate process of washing, peeling, soaking, and drying in the sun. The end product is a fine, white powder with the same appearance and texture as cornstarch. Arrowroot is valued by herbalists primarily for its demulcent and antidiarrheal properties. Exactly how it produces its therapeutic effects is not known. The chemical composition of the herb has not been thoroughly investigated.
While only Maranta arundinacea is considered true arrowroot, the common name for the herb is often applied to a variety of starches. These include other species of Maranta, such as Maranta ramosissima, Maranta allouya, Maranta nobilis, as well as Brazilian arrowroot (Manihot utilissima or Manihot palmate), Tahitian arrowroot (Tacca oceanica), and East Indian arrowroot (Curcuma augustifolia). While some of these starches may be chemically similar to true arrowroot, it is not clear if they produce the same medicinal effects. Consumers interested in trying arrowroot are advised to choose Maranta arundinacea, which is sometimes referred to as West Indian arrowroot or simply Maranta.
As of 2000, much research is still required to determine if arrowroot can produce significant health benefits safely and effectively. The proper dosage of the herb has also yet to be determined.
While not approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), arrowroot is thought to have several beneficial effects. However, there is little scientific evidence to support these claims. Today, the herb is primarily used to soothe an uneasy stomach and alleviate diarrhea or nausea and vomiting. Since it contains calcium and carbohydrates as well as other nutrients, arrowroot is also used as an easily digested source of nutrition for infants, people recovering from illnesses
Because arrowroot has not been studied extensively in people or animals, its effectiveness is based mainly on its reputation as a folk remedy. Despite the lack of scientific evidence, some practitioners of alternative medicine consider it useful for certain conditions. Alternative physicians praise the stomach-soothing powers of arrowroot as well as its nutritional value. Another prominent herbalist recommends arrowroot for preventing athlete's foot. Putting the dried powder inside socks and shoes can help to combat the moisture that contributes to the growth of foot fungus. However, arrowroot is not known to have antifungal properties.
Arrowroot was popular in the past as an antidote for arrow poison. It also had a reputation as a treatment for scorpion and spider bites as well as gangrene. However, there is no scientific evidence to support these uses. In cases of poisoning, the local poison control center or an emergency care center should be contacted immediately.
Aside from its medicinal uses, arrowroot is still used in cooking. Much like cornstarch, arrowroot is used as a thickener for sauces, soups, and confections.
The optimum daily dosage of arrowroot has not been established with any certainty. Consumers should follow the package directions for proper use or consult a doctor experienced in the use of alternative remedies. Arrowroot powder, which is basically flavorless, is often mixed with juice or other beverages before ingestion.
Arrowroot is not known to be harmful when taken in recommended dosages. However, it is important to remember that the long-term effects of taking the herb (in any amount) have not been investigated. Due to the lack of sufficient medical research, arrowroot should be used with caution in children, women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, and people with liver or kidney disease.
People who experience vomiting or severe/prolonged diarrhea may be prone to dehydration. They should drink plenty of water (six to eight glasses a day) in order to maintain a proper fluid balance. A doctor should be consulted if the vomiting or diarrhea lasts longer than three days or is accompanied by other symptoms such as pain or fever.
When taken in recommended dosages, arrowroot is not associated with any significant side effects.
Arrowroot is not known to interact adversely with any drug or dietary supplement. It has been combined with milk, lemon and other fruit juices, sugar, and wine without apparent harm.
To avoid constipation, consumers should not take arrowroot with other medications or dietary supplements used to alleviate diarrhea.
Gruenwald, Joerg. PDR for Herbal Medicines. New Jersey: Medical Economics, 1998.
Rolston D. D., P. Mathew, and V. I. Mathan. "Food-Based Solutions Are a Viable Alternative to Glucose-Electrolyte Solutions for Oral Hydration in Acute Diarrhoea-Studies in a Rat Model of Secretory Diarrhoea." Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 84, no. 1 (1990): 156-159.
American Botanical Council. P.O. Box 144345, Austin, TX 78714-4345.