The use of turmeric in food and medicine dates as far back as 4,000 years. Clearly, turmeric has withstood the test of time and proven its benefits in human diet. In ancient (Hindu) Vedic culture, turmeric was also an essential ingredient in religious and social ceremonies–a practice that continues till today. When added to food, the spice lends its signature orange-yellow color and warm (not spicy), earthy, bittersweet peppery flavor.
In 700 A.D., turmeric is documented to have traveled to China from India. In 1,280 A.D., Marco Polo–an Italian explorer, writer, and merchant who spent 17 years in China–related turmeric to a super expensive spice saffron due to the similarity in color. Modern researchers started taking interest in turmeric in 1970s . The spice is today backed by thousands of scientific research studies and has become a global phenomenon for its amazing health benefits. Turmeric is greatly popularized by cafes, food manufacturers, and nutritionists alike in many traditional as well as modern recipes. It is not a surprise that the spice promptly showed up on the Google Food Trend report in 2016 as one of the most “GOOGLED” foods on the Internet. In demystifying turmeric, my goal is to shed some light on the spice so that you can decide for yourself if you would like turmeric to be an everlasting ingredient in your spice box.
Turmeric and ginger are relatives
If you have ever used ginger, you will quickly become friends with turmeric: it is a part of the Zingiberaceae (ginger) family and just like ginge is a rhizome– part of the stem, which grows underground. In its fresh form, turmeric resembles ginger: root form and fibrous flesh, but the flavor profile differs as turmeric flavor ends on a sweeter (peppery) note, whereas ginger leaves a hot and pungent taste in the mouth. Interestingly, in Indian cooking both ginger and turmeric are added together in most dals and curries.
Turmeric: fresh or ground
Even though I had turmeric-infused food twice everyday for more than two decades, I never had it in the fresh form until a few years ago when I found it in my local coop in upstate NY. But that is not to say that fresh turmeric is not used in India. In fact, in Rajasthan, a state only a few hours away from where I grew up, fresh turmeric use is very popular. On a recent trip to India, my sister Monika made an awesome fresh turmeric veggie (stay tuned for yummy fresh turmeric recipes from her). However, fresh turmeric, at least where I live, is not so fresh. Therefore, based on the long history of use in my family, I continue to use ground turmeric much in the same way as my mom does.
A note on buying real turmeric
It is sad but true that it’s very easy to buy adulterated turmeric. My grandmother and mom would always either buy turmeric (and other spices) from a trusted shop or buy turmeric in dried form (see in the topmost picture) and get it powdered at the same shop, much in the same way you can grind coffee beans in grocery stores in the U.S. In fact, many home chefs in India still buy the dried root and get it processed in their presence at the grocery store. While I grew up with these stories in India, I was quite surprised to learn about a case of “adulterated turmeric” in the U.S. In July 2016, the Food Safety News website reported not so healthy news on turmeric “Ground turmeric recalled nationwide because of excessive lead .”
Using adulterated turmeric can be quite harmful due to the addition of the following culprits:
- Metanil Yellow: a dye that is not permitted in food but its bright yellow color matches that of turmeric.
- Yellow chalk powder: yuck!
- Lead: As you probably know, lead is a toxic metal and particularly harmful for children. In adults, long-term exposure can lead to high blood pressure and kidney damage.
To get around buying fake turmeric, I would recommend the following safety measures:
- Buy organic: Often organic food manufacturers and suppliers have higher product standards; therefore, organic turmeric may have less chances of adulteration. I normally buy organic turmeric either from my local coop GreenStar in the bulk spice section or a (well-researched) trusted brand Starwest Botanicals Organic Turmeric Root Powder from Amazon.com. The 1 lb bag can last a long time especially if you don’t use it twice a day. Just take out a little in a jar/bottle and store the rest in refrigerator. The Starwest brand is quite transparent about its products; you can find their USDA certification information here.
- Buy a trusted brand: Buy a spice brand that has a long history in your kitchen. The quality of turmeric at Indian grocery shops should also be fine, you may want to look for the organic version. I usually don’t buy turmeric (and most other spices) from an Indian grocery store as we didn’t have one for the longest time where I live.
Turmeric health Benefits
India produces around 80% of the total global turmeric; the country is also the highest consumer as the spice shows up in Indian kitchens in everyday food: dals, curries, veggies and more. But if you happen to be down with a cold, flu, or body ache, grandmothers and mothers often prescribe, Haldi doodh (turmeric milk) for a quick recovery (stay tuned for the recipe). On a very recent family trip to India, my mom prescribed it to my son who came down with a bad spot of cold. In Okinawa, an island in Japan where most centenarians on the planet live, the residents are known to drink ucchin (turmeric) tea and use turmeric flakes on white miso soup or in turmeric rice . Turmeric is also an important compound in Ayurveda–the ancient Indian medicine system, which still has firm roots in India ; and in traditional Chinese medicine.
Clearly, people in many cultures have long been aware of the health benefits of the spice, specially as an anti-inflammatory agent and source of antioxidants. Curcumin, a compound found in turmeric is associated with its various health benefits. However, some studies suggest that turmeric should be taken as a whole food rather than in the form of extracted curcumin to derive its health benefits as their may be additional health-promoting compounds in turmeric other than curcumin . The list of turmeric health benefits is quite amazing as the spice has been touted to either prevent, treat, or help in combating the following health conditions .
How to use turmeric to get its health benefits?
When cooking with turmeric, less is more. Only 1/2 a teaspoon of ground turmeric (~1 tsp fresh, grated) is enough to cook a curry for four. Even a small amount in excess can make the food flavor bitter. It is also important to consume turmeric with either fat or black pepper. Why? When taken on its own the spice has poor bioavailability: a measure of the proportion of nutrient (from food) absorption into the blood stream. To get the maximum benefits out of turmeric:
- Consume turmeric with fat: In Indian cooking, turmeric is used during the tempering process (check out this blogpost on tempering) with fat and whole spices or boiled in dal, which is topped with a lot of ghee. Taking turmeric with a bit of fat increases its absorption.
- Consume turmeric with a pinch of black pepper: add a pinch (yes, only a pinch will do) of black pepper to the turmeric recipe. It appears that piperine in black pepper helps increase the bioavailability of turmeric. Curry powder, therefore, is an ideal source to get the benefits of this amazing spice as it has both turmeric and black pepper.
Whole food vs supplement
Having worked as a food and beverage analyst for several years, I have become acquainted with one trend (among many): When scientists unveil health benefits of a food ingredient, its sales surge both in food and (often) supplement form. But usually we as consumers quickly tend to move on to next shiny ingredient that happens to become popular in the media. Two observations in the context of turmeric:
- Turmeric is currently riding the wave of popularity, but some reports have already started questioning the efficacy of the ingredient in treating diseases . If you adopt a healthy ingredient, turmeric in this instance, on a yo-yo basis, it is unlikely to yield desired benefits.
- A number of sources report that the best way to achieve the benefits of turmeric are through dietary consumption over a long period of time; as it is done in cultures that use turmeric on a daily basis  .
Therefore, the reductionist approach of extracting compounds out of a food and taking it in the supplement form does not seem natural or for that matter beneficial, specially if you feel inclined to soon move on to the next health pill. My confidence in supplements is also not firm as dietary supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S. The FDA reveals on its website, “FDA is not authorized to review dietary supplement products for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed.” Therefore, as a consumer you are more or less responsible to make sure that the supplement you are taking is safe. In August 2017, the FDA, on its website, shared two stories on turmeric treatments gone wrong, where one patient lost her life and the other needed to be admitted to an emergency room. If you really want to try turmeric supplement or treatment, please talk to your physician first. By the way, it is super easy to sneak turmeric into food. On TLC, check out the following recipes with turmeric:
Turmeric and safety
To enjoy turmeric’s health benefits, you don’t need to go on a mono diet of turmeric. Enjoy it in small amounts on a regular basis in your culinary creations. Taken in excess, turmeric can upset stomach and in extreme cases can cause ulcers. The Internet is full of recommendations from University of Maryland Medical Center advise: 1.5-3g of fresh turmeric and 1-3g of ground turmeric per day. It appears that the UoM has not included the recommended amounts in its updated article. However, in India based on the average amount used in curries on daily basis, an individual probably consumers 1/2-3/4 tsp (1.5-2.2g) of ground turmeric per day. My mom also confirms this passed-down-from-generations advise of “not exceeding turmeric use more than 1tsp per day.” And, I follow this advise to the letter.
Turmeric can also interfere with medications that address certain health conditions . Be sure to speak with your physician if are diabetic, taking blood thinners, or using strong antacids.
- Turmeric is a natural blood thinner. Therefore, if you take any type of blood thinning medications like Warfarin, definitely speak with your physician prior to start taking turmeric in your diet or in supplement form.
- Excessive turmeric dosage/amounts can cause hypoglycemia–abnormally low-levels of blood sugar. If you are diabetic, it would be better to seek your physician’s advice before adding turmeric to your diet.
- Turmeric may also inhibit the effectiveness of drugs used to decrease stomach acid.
TLC Turmeric Rating: Green
- Turmeric has been used in both herbal medicine and food for a long, long time.
- Many cultures have documented its anti-inflammatory benefits, which are also backed by scientific studies.
- It is really easy to adopt turmeric in diet–add it to anything that will camouflage its color.
Reference & Resources
 Prasad, S. and Aggarwal, B.B.(2011). Turmeric, the Golden Spice. In Benzie I.F.F. Wachtel-Galor S.(editors), Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. 2nd edition
The Okinawa Way: How to Improve Your Health And Longevity Dramatically