If you like curry dishes, no doubt you’re familiar with the bright yellow or orange color of the sauce. This vivid color is due to turmeric, a spice that comes from the rhizome, or underground stem (similar to ginger!), of the Curcuma longa plant. Turmeric has been used for more than 5,000 years for food, medicine, religious purposes, and as a dye. It’s native to Southeast Asia, and currently is grown in a number of countries, including India, Indonesia, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Haiti, and Jamaica.
Turmeric is always used as a ground-up powder. It used to be called Indian saffron because its color is similar to that of saffron. However, turmeric shouldn’t be substituted in recipes that call for saffron. And in case you think you’ve never eaten turmeric before, chances are you have if you’ve ever used yellow mustard — turmeric is what gives mustard its bright yellow color! Turmeric is sometimes used to color cheese and butter, too. The substance responsible for turmeric’s yellow color is called curcumin.
Like many spices and herbs, turmeric has been used for thousands of years, primarily in India, for medicinal purpose to help digestion, improve liver function, and as a pain reliever. Lately, researchers have discovered that turmeric may be helpful for some other diseases, too, although many studies have used turmeric in lab animals and not humans. Here are some of the possible health benefits of this brilliantly hued spice:
Inflammation. Curcumin might just give prescription and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicines a run for their money — and with fewer side effects such as ulcers and decreased white blood cell count.
Arthritis. Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, curcumin may help relieve the symptoms of arthritis. In fact, studies have shown that people who have arthritis who eat turmeric on a regular basis have fewer symptoms, such as joint swelling, stiffness, and shortened walking time. Curcumin is an antioxidant, which may also explain how it exerts its effects.
Inflammatory bowel disease. Mice given a substance that normally causes ulcerative colitis were protected from the condition when given curcumin: They lost less weight and their intestines showed decreased signs of the disease compared to mice who were not given curcumin. People with ulcerative colitis who were given curcumin had a longer remission period compared to people who were given a placebo (inactive treatment).
Cancer. It’s thought that curcumin’s antioxidant properties may help protect against DNA damage that leads to cancer. Curcumin may also prevent the development of blood vessels that are necessary to promote the growth of tumors. In animal studies, curcumin works to prevent or kill prostate, breast, colon, and skin cancer cells, but these findings have yet to be duplicated in humans. Fortunately, researchers are beginning to study the possible anticancer effects of this compound in humans.
Heart disease. Curcumin seems to increase the number of LDL-receptors in the body, which means the liver is able to clear more LDL (“bad”) cholesterol from the body, thereby lowering the risk of heart disease. One small study showed that curcumin increased HDL (“good”) cholesterol, which is even better news!
Alzheimer disease. Curcumin seems to slow the progression of Alzheimer disease in mice by preventing the buildup of amyloid plaque, a key sign of Alzheimer. It also seems to dissolve existing amyloid plaque. And studies looking at humans who eat curry dishes a few times per week have a lower risk of dementia. Human studies are underway (but in the meantime, it wouldn’t hurt to include more curry in your eating plan!).
Turmeric is safe, but eating large amounts may cause stomach upset and possibly ulcers. Those with gallstones should go easy with turmeric. There’s a chance that turmeric supplements taken with certain diabetes medicines may cause hypoglycemia (low blood glucose). And avoid turmeric supplements if you take blood-thinner medicines.
How to Use Turmeric
Turmeric comes in the form of a ground spice and in capsules, tea, and a liquid extract. If you’re a purist, use real turmeric instead of curry powder when cooking (be careful because this spice can stain). Add turmeric to your diet in the following ways:
- Make your own curry dishes
- Add it (along with cayenne pepper, garlic powder, and onion powder) to rice to make yellow rice
- Stir some into egg salad to boost the color
- Stir turmeric into your potato salad
- Sauté cauliflower florets in a little olive oil and add turmeric; season with pepper
A little turmeric goes a long way, so use it sparingly!