Turmeric (Curcuma domestica) is a spice superstar! Used for nearly 4,000 years in India, first as a dye, then a kitchen staple, the colorful root has been revealing its many medicinal properties over the centuries and now, under intense scientific scrutiny, it’s emerging as one of nature’s most powerful healers.
The spice owes it’s preventive and curative powers to its active ingredient: curcumin, a compound so diverse and powerfully rich in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions that it has been shown to protect and improve virtually every organ of the body. Currently, studies are focusing on its potential to lower the incidence and severity of chronic diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, etc., though over 50 healing actions – from pain relief to improved circulation – have been noted.
Preparation and Storage
Turmeric is a tropical perennial, the rhizome, or root, of a ginger-like plant. The name derives from the Latin terra merita meaning “meritorious earth,” referring to the color which, when ground, resembles a mineral pigment. In many cultures it’s simply called “yellow root.”
The spice is used most effectively in powder form. It’s very tough to grind, so you’ll usually find it available as a bright yellow, fine powder. The powder will maintain its coloring properties indefinitely though the flavor will diminish over time, so buy in moderation. Store in airtight containers, out of sunlight.
When cooked, turmeric has a mild fragrance, similar to ginger and orange with a slight peppery taste. To test for freshness: heat a little oil in a pan and sprinkle with turmeric, stirring so it won’t burn. In seconds you should enjoy a delicious aromatic perfume. If not, it’s past it’s prime.
- Cancer: Research has shown that the lowest cancer rates are in countries with the highest dietary intake of turmeric. The active ingredient, curcumin, fights cancer on many levels, slowing progression (e.g., breast, prostate, skin, pancreatic), preventing and delaying onset (colon), protecting against tobacco-induced lung cancer, etc. Studies have demonstrated that eating foods spiced with turmeric protects against environmental carcinogens: reducing risk of childhood leukemia, inhibiting damage from ionizing radiation, such as from the sun, x-rays, other medical tests, preventing formation of cancer-causing compounds in processed or cured foods.
- Alzheimer’s: In the last 25 years, the incidence of Alzheimer’s has doubled in the U.S. and increasing around world with the exception of India, where it affects only 1 percent. Researchers suspect that turmeric may explain the difference. Curcumin has been shown to helps break down amyloid-A plaques in the brain, as well as reduce toxic metal levels in the brain that contribute to Alzheimer’s. Regular turmeric intake also protects the brain from decline in memory and enhances overall function. Among non-Alzheimer’s patients, studies have found that those who consumed the most turmeric-rich foods scored higher on standard mental tests than those who didn’t
- Parkinson’s: Curcumin in turmeric appears to protect brain cell degeneration and the brain in general.
- Arthritis: – Curcumin, taken as a supplement, has proven to be as effective easing inflammation as NSAID drugs (such as Celebrex, Naproxen), avoiding dangerous side effects. It’s found to be more effective than over-the-counter aspirin or ibuprofen.
- Heart Disease: Turmeric, eaten regularly, can help prevent clogged arteries, reduce size of blood clots and lower cholesterol.
- Protects liver: Turmeric promotes production of enzymes that detoxify and rejuvenate the liver and stimulate bile flow.
- Skin problems: Turmeric (curcumin) enhances skin vibrancy and is a common ingredient in cosmetics. In India, women apply a paste of the powdered spice as a daily mask to prevent wrinkles and blemishes and to impart a golden glow to the complexion. Topically, turmeric also has been effective for treating acne, itching, rashes, contact dermatitis, psoriasis, scleroderma.
- Other conditions: Studies have shown that turmeric helps fight Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Chrohn’s and colitis), cystic fibrosis, depression, Type 2 diabetes, eye diseases (turmeric extract), gallbladder disease, (20 mg/day supplemental curcumin), age-related macular degeneration (AMD), pain (reduces inflammation).
In the kitchen
Turmeric is probably best known as the ingredient that gives curry it’s bright yellow-orange color. However, there’s not a whole lot of it in curry, so you’ll get more of the benefits by using the spice separately. In Middle Eastern dishes the powder is sprinkled into many meat and vegetable dishes, while the Japanese add it to teas, vinegars, noodles, even dog food! In Malaysia and Thailand it’s found in the ever popular piccalilli (pickled chutney-like vegetable dish). In England, it’s in cough drops, as well as in soaps, lotions, creams, and in the U.S. it’s the yellow in your everyday “ball park” mustard.
Turmeric can enhance so many dishes that you might want to keep a shaker handy on your kitchen counter. Toss it into vegetables – steamed, stir-fried or baked. Douse on sliced apples, or season meats with it before sautéing or searing. Add to sautéed onions, soft-boiled or poached eggs, dips, salad dressings and marinades. Using black pepper and turmeric together enhances curcumin absorption, as does olive oil. Turmeric is not recommended for dishes calling for dairy, which masks its delicate flavor.
Caveat: in ancient times turmeric was used as a potent fabric dye, so be careful about spilling it – it can be tough to get the stain out of clothing or a kitchen counter!
The safest and simplest way to get the benefits of turmeric is to eat a lot of it on a daily basis. In India, the average daily dose is 1 teaspoon over 3 meals. If this is not practical, there are turmeric supplements. Look for capsules with 100% certified organic turmeric extract with at least 95% curcuminoids. The formula should be free of fillers, additives and excipients (a substance added as a processing or stability aid). There are some caveats so be sure to read the contraindications on the label.
For general health, a capsule with 400-600 mg can be taken, but check with your medical advisor about larger amounts, especially over long periods of time. This is best taken on an empty stomach about an hour before eating. To improve absorption take it with grapefruit juice, pineapple juice, pepperine (supplemental form of black pepper).
The Epicentre: Encyclopedia of Spices
Healing Spices by Bharat Aggarwal, PhD (Sterling Publishing)
University of Maryland Medical Center: Turmeric
“Cancer Growth in Head and Neck Suppressed by Turmeric” – Medical News Today