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Saponins are glycosides of steroids, steroid alkaloids (steroids with a nitrogen function) or triterpenes found in plants, especially in the plant skins where they form a waxy protective coating. They dissolve in water to form a soapy froth. Saponins are believed to be useful in the human diet for controlling cholesterol, but some (including those produced by the soapberry) are poisonous if swallowed and can cause urticaria (skin rash) in many people. Any markedly toxic saponin is known as a sapotoxin.

Saponins have been identified in:

  • Soapberry and many other members of the family Sapindaceae, including buckeyes
  • Soapwort
  • Aesculus spp (Conkers/horse chestnuts)
  • Digitalis (as digitonin)
  • Grape skin
  • Olives
  • Panax (as ginsenoside)
  • Quillaja saponaria (member of the Rosaceae family)
  • Soybeans
  • Licorice
  • Yucca
  • Aloe
  • Quinoa
  • Bacopa monnieri
  • Chlorophytum species
  • Chlorogalum species, soap plants
  • Tuberous cucurbit species

Triterpenoid saponins

Triterpenoid saponins are naturally occurring sugar conjugates of triterpenes possessing various biological activities, including antiviral action. These include:

  • Aescin
  • Avenacin A-1
  • Glycyrrhetinic acid
  • Glycyrrhizin
  • Saikosaponin A
  • Senegin II
  • Ursolic acid

Steroid saponins

Steroid saponins include:

  • Astragaloside III
  • Cimicifugoside
  • Diosgenin; Nitogenin
  • Ginsenoside Re
  • Ginsenoside Rf
  • Ginsenoside Rg
  • Ruscogenin


The saponin QS21 is being investigated for possible beneficial effects on the immune system. Soyasaponins inhibit sialotransferase enzymes, enzymes which are critical to the evolution of breast cancer.