Turmeric (curcuma longa) is extensively cultivated in the tropics and the root is widely used in cooking. Turmeric has a deep, golden-orange colour and looks similar to ginger. It is usually boiled, sun-dried and then ground into a powder. It has a peppery, warm flavour and a mild fragrance. Turmeric is the main ingredient in curry powder and can be used as a colouring agent. It has long been used in both cooking and colouring. Turmeric has also played an important role in traditional Eastern cultures and Ayurvedic medicine. Much of its new-found popularity is due to its therapeutic properties.
We are frequently told that colourful plant foods are good for our health because of their phytochemical properties (plant pigments) and turmeric is no different. It has a range of health promoting benefits due to curcumin, the yellow pigment. As several metabolic diseases and age-related degenerative disorders are closely associated with oxidative processes in the body, the use of herbs and spices as a source of antioxidants to combat oxidation warrants further attention.
The potential health benefits of curcumin include better regulation of inflammation. It is used in the treatment of numerous inflammatory conditions for its anti-inflammatory effects. Curcumin is thought to slow down the inflammatory pathway, although this line of research is being continued.
Turmeric’s anti-inflammatory properties have been compared to those of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS). Clinical trials have found it to be more effective than a placebo for relieving pain and swelling in people with osteo and rheumatoid arthritis. However, more well-designed clinical studies are needed to determine and document the efficacy of curcumin and combination products in patients taking NSAIDS to treat osteoarthritis.
There is still a lot for us to learn about this fascinating spice, but early research has looked into the potential effect of curcumin on a range of conditions from pre-menstrual tension to Alzheimer’s disease. However, more clinical studies are required before these health claims can be confirmed.
Another active ingredient in turmeric is turmerone. Although far less is known about turmerone compared to curcumin, it can be obtained from whole ground turmeric. Some studies suggest tumerone can support cognitive performance due to its neuroprotective properties.
Potential issues and benefits
It is important to note that the amount of curcumin in turmeric as we buy it can vary, depending on species, growing conditions, harvesting etc. Most of the studies use turmeric extracts that contain mostly curcumin alone, with dosages usually exceeding 1 gram per day. It would be very difficult to reach these levels just using the turmeric spice in cooking, although it is clearly a welcome addition to the diet.
In addition to delivering antioxidants and other properties, herbs and spices can be used in recipes to partially or wholly replace salt, sugar and added saturated fat in, for example, marinades and dressings, stir-fry dishes, casseroles, soups, curries and Mediterranean-style cooking.
This article was written by Jo Lewin – Associate nutritionist via BBC Good Food