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25 May

Smart Spice: Turmeric

turmericIt may not share cinnamon’s universal applicability to consumables, but turmeric is another spice with some powerful culinary and medicinal qualities that deserves our attention. Turmeric, known officially as Curcuma longa and historically as Indian saffron, is a rhizome of the ginger family. Its horizontal root system is dug up, baked, and ground into a fine orange powder, which then goes into any number of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Southeast Asian dishes. Pretty much every curry you come across anywhere, for example, includes a generous portion of turmeric. Common yellow mustard also includes turmeric, mostly as a food colorant.

Turmeric imparts a unique flavor: slightly bitter and a bit spicy, with a mustard-like scent. Upon tasting a dab of turmeric powder by itself for the first time, one is reminded of curries and other Asian stews. It’s a bit of an “Aha!” moment, in fact; you’re finally direct witness to the identity of that secretive flavor lurking within the explosiveness of the common Asian curry after all those years of take out and home cooking with anonymous curry powder mixes. Turmeric itself is actually fairly mild and unassuming, so using it as a solitary spice won’t turn every dish into a curry bonanza – in case you were worried.

Here are a few ways to experiment with the stuff in the kitchen:

  • Turmeric pairs well with fish, often accompanied by little else than salt, pepper, and some lemon juice.
  • For roasted chicken, I’ll sometimes rub the dry, raw bird with a turmeric-butter mixture before it enters the oven.
  • You can turn that same turmeric butter into turmeric ghee – in Ayurvedic tradition, turmeric and ghee have a potent synergistic effect. Just mix softened butter with turmeric a couple hours before clarifying it.
  • Add a few teaspoons to your chili for a curious subtlety that’ll make tasters scratch their chins and wonder aloud.
  • The next time you roast a winter squash, sprinkle the finished flesh with turmeric, cinnamon, and butter.
  • Simmer a teaspoon of turmeric and a teaspoon of cardamom in a cup of coconut milk for ten minutes. Remove, strain, and add a dash of cinnamon for a hearty, healthy drink.
  • Roast fresh cauliflower dusted with turmeric, cumin, salt, and pepper and tossed in your cooking fat of choice.
  • Try this Moroccan Chicken Casserole.

Years ago, I did a short piece of the anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory effect of turmeric. Turmeric was shown to improve insulin sensitivity and blood glucose levels in rodent models. Mice given the supplement were less likely to develop type 2 diabetes, and they enjoyed greater body fat losses. Good, promising stuff all around. Plus, there’s plenty more:

Alzheimer’s/Dementia

Cancer

Miscellany

Most of the research on turmeric has revolved around curcumin, an active, antioxidant component of the spice. By weight, curcumin content of turmeric powder goes no higher than 3.14% – not a terribly large amount, considering the therapeutic curcumin dosages being studied. Doses of between 2-6g are typically used in curcumin research, and it’s basically impossible to eat enough turmeric to ingest that amount of curcumin. Say you wanted a daily intake of 3g of curcumin, obtained through turmeric powder. Assuming you go the strongest stuff, you’d have to take about 3 ounces (conversion reminder: 16 ounces is 1 pound is 454 grams) of turmeric powder on a daily basis. That’s a lot of spice powder. I don’t care how much you love Indian food – it’s not going to be easy. Luckily, curcumin is non-toxic, and doses of up to 12g daily have been safely used. Note, though, that curcumin is a potential anticoagulant, so anyone taking prescription anticoagulants should check with their physician before supplementing.

Despite the focus on extracted curcumin, the epidemiology of cancer in India and other turmeric-using countries suggest that low, regular doses are beneficial, especially in cancer prevention. I love the taste, myself, so I’ll continue to use it regardless. I think you should, too.

Got any great turmeric recipes? Any success stories after using it as a health supplement? Let us know in the comments!

You want comments? We got comments:

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  1. I just want to mention that turmeric is apparently a laxative also. I made the coconut/almond milk tea with turmeric and cardamom last night and visited the bathroom several times! I looked it up and several sources give it as a natural laxative. I will definitely start slow with turmeric…

    Catharine wrote on January 29th, 2012
  2. There’s also a study on the combined effects of curcumin and PEITC (found in some cruciferous vegetables) against prostate cancer:

    “Combined inhibitory effects of curcumin and phenethyl isothiocyanate on the growth of human PC-3 prostate xenografts in immunodeficient mice.”

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16423986

    MK wrote on March 19th, 2012
  3. Is curcumin extract available commercially?
    If so do health-food store carry it?
    THKS!

    Woody wrote on August 17th, 2012
  4. Turmeric and a good hungarian paprika pair well for a nice color in spanish rice…Paella..boullabaise etc.
    Almost tastes like there is saffron present!..:)
    Also use Turmeric for color in typical bread dressing for turkey meals..as most poultry broths dont have the nice color and the amount needed for color wont interfere with taste.

    Sterling wrote on October 24th, 2012
  5. I have been taking tumeric and ginger for the past 6 months. I used to have knee pains every day and I started taking tumeric and ginger everyday and it has helped me a great deal.As soon as I had less pain in my knees I only take the tumeric and ginger every other day.

    Stefany wrote on January 13th, 2013
  6. HI- I am just getting started on the foods, but I have been taking turmeric in a supplement form (more concentrated)for about three months- and my fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis do not bother me much at all any more. I can only believe that it will get better with the addition of the better foods! Thank you.

    Joan wrote on January 15th, 2013
  7. Mark – what about fresh turmeric?? I accidently bought 1/2 lb – there was no label & I thought it was maybe jeruselum artichoke – Anyway – should I just grate it like ginger? And how does the curcumin count compare to the powdered kind?
    Thanks!

    Lisa wrote on February 5th, 2013
  8. We make our own capsules with Turmeric, Black Pepper,and Cayenne Pepper, I have been taking it for a long time, mix 30 teaspoons of Turmeric,with 1/2 Teaspoon each of the peppers, I take 5 capsules twice a day, the Piperine in the Peppers boosts the Curcumin in the Turmeric into the bloodstream by a whopping 2000%, its great for Inflammation, I desperately need 4 joint replacements, and without the Turmeric I would not be walking around, as I have proved this by stopping taking it for a few days, big mistake I won’t do that again

    Nugget wrote on March 1st, 2013
  9. My trick to making turmeric taste delicious is I add 4 parts coconut oil to 1 part turmeric powder and 1 part ginger powder than 1-2 parts bee pollen mixed with honey and you’ve got yourself a tasty little treat with maximum absorption or you could even slap it on some chicken for a little sauce dipping.

    dan wrote on March 2nd, 2013
  10. I am a miltiple time cancer survivor, a stroke survivor, and disabled with increasing arthritis. I am 41 years old. I put turmeric powder in my nutribullet with other veggies. Make an elixir that has many healthy benefits. I use Kale, onions, blueberries, mushrooms and seeds (or almonds). Just started adding fresh turmeric to see if helps with joint pain. Can somebody please give me an idea of how much powder I can/should consume. As for taste, I love curries, but turmeric by itself is awful.

    barry wrote on June 4th, 2013
  11. You have loads of good information on Turmeric. I heard one time the drug companies wanted reclassify the main component in turmeric known as curcumin. So even indirectly the drug companies see the huge benefit of Turmeric has on our health.

    Great post.

    Travis wrote on June 7th, 2013
  12. Question: I just got several tumeric roots to plant. What would be a good amount to eat daily for mild arthritis pain

    Isla wrote on June 23rd, 2013
  13. I use termeric and honey and a little bit of milk as a facial mask a couple times a week and it has made a huge impact on my acne it helped with my hyperpigmentation and my inflammation on my face. This is most def my holy grail for at home facials.since using termeric powder my face has gotton somuch better and my face has cleared up so much.

    rebecca wrote on March 9th, 2014
  14. I have never used the spice in cooking (but I’m going to start). Recently came across the benefits of this spice and have added it to my lemon water each morning. I have noticed an increase in energy.anyone else?

    Tiffany T wrote on April 16th, 2014
  15. Great in hot milk with sugar or honey. (Sugar for cooling affect on the body, honey for heating, etc)

    Great to whiten teeth (does not dye them yellow!): mix with yogurt to form paste. Two or three minutes. Didn’t stain my white fillings.

    Better to use the powder spice than pills. Can probably get medicinal benefit from this delicious thing by just consuming it every day in a way we enjoy just like large sections of the world have for thousands of years.. Pill culture likes to tell us we can’t get what we need from nature without scientists as intermediatories.. probably not the case!

    Taticia wrote on June 7th, 2014

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