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What is turmeric?

Responsible for giving curry its characteristic yellow colour, turmeric (curcuma longa) influences the taste, colour and nature of the food its combined with. Long famed for its health benefits, especially its anti-inflammatory properties, turmeric is a tropical spice that receives a lot of press coverage. It’s a member of the ginger family and the root of a flowering plant.

Discover our full range of health benefit guides and also check out some of our delicious turmeric recipes, from scrambled eggs to fish curry.

Nutritional profile of turmeric

One tablespoon of ground turmeric powder contains approximately:

• 29 kcal/123 KJ
• 9g protein
• 4g carbohydrates
• 1g fibre
• 3g fat
• 196mg potassium
• 7mg iron

Turmeric, ginger & coconut fish curry

Top 10 top health benefits of turmeric

1. Contains protective bioactive compounds

Colourful plant foods are good for our health, thanks to their plant pigments, and turmeric is no exception. Much of the publicity around the spice is due to curcumin, the main active component which makes up about 3% of the root by weight. Although an impressive constituent, curcumin is just one of hundreds of bioactive compounds found in turmeric.

2. Has antioxidant properties

The value of protective compounds like curcumin is that they help the body combat the damaging effects of cell oxidation. Over time, this process may lead to chronic inflammation and, as a result, age-related conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer.

Including protective antioxidant foods in our diet makes our bodies better placed to cope with ageing and the inflammation associated with it. It also helps with exercise-induced inflammation and muscle soreness.

3. May help ease arthritis

Studies comparing the anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric with those of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) have shown great promise. Animal studies exploring curcumin’s therapeutic potential as a treatment for arthritis have also been encouraging.

Nevertheless, we need more well-designed clinical trials to determine the efficacy of curcumin for arthritis patients, particularly those who rely on NSAIDS to manage their condition.

4. May support those with Alzheimer’s or dementia

Another active ingredient in turmeric is turmerone. Although less is known about turmerone, studies suggest it may be useful for treating conditions such as stroke and Alzheimer’s disease since it helps trigger cell repair and may potentially support the recovery of brain function.

However, these studies typically involve animal and cell models only, and because the active constituents of turmeric are often poorly absorbed in humans, more research is needed before we can establish how beneficial turmerone may be.

5. May lower the risk of cardiovascular disease

Studies suggest the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of curcumin may protect against some of the steps inherent in the development of heart disease, such as helping balance cholesterol levels.

6. May support the immune system

According to studies, curcumin may act as an immune system modulator, influencing important immune cells; these include T cells, B cells and Natural Killer cells. In addition, curcumin appears to down-regulate pro-inflammatory cytokines, compounds whose prolonged activity can lead to the damage caused by inflammation.

When consumed at low doses, curcumin may also enhance our antibody responses, helping us fight off infection. Animal studies suggest it may even play a role in controlling allergic conditions such as hay fever.

7. May help prevent cancer

Curcumin also appears to lead to a number of cellular changes that may help in the fight against cancer. Active at different stages of cancer development, studies suggest curcumin may help limit the growth of new blood vessels in tumours, reduce the spread of cancer and contribute to the death of cancer cells.

8. May boost mood

Once again, it is curcumin that may be responsible for helping the spice lift our mood and alleviate some of the symptoms of depression. One study examining its antidepressive effects found that curcumin was as effective as the drug, Prozac.

There’s also a suggestion that curcumin may boost feel-good brain chemicals, including the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.

9. May help with memory

Animal studies suggest that curcumin increases the levels of a brain hormone called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This helps promote the life of nerve cells and plays an important role in memory and learning.

More human studies are needed to fully investigate these benefits, but initial findings look promising.

10. May have anti-ageing properties

Curcumin may help slow the ageing process by activating certain proteins and protecting cells from damage. Thus, it may delay the progression of age-related conditions and alleviate the associated symptoms.

Turmeric scrambled eggs

Is turmeric safe for everyone?

For most of us, turmeric is a safe option, however, there are some circumstances where caution is needed.

• If you’re pregnant, you should avoid taking medicinal quantities of turmeric. Recent studies on animals suggest curcumin may alter levels of the hormone oestrogen. However, enjoying the spice in small amounts, for example in a meal or drink, may be beneficial during pregnancy.

• If you have iron deficiency anaemia, avoid turmeric in high quantities. Compounds in the spice appear to bind to iron in the gut, making it unavailable for absorption and worsening symptoms.

• If you suffer from gallstones, bile duct obstruction or liver disease, you should be aware that turmeric increases bile secretion. Including large amounts in your diet may aggravate your symptoms.

• If you’re taking medication, you should refer to your GP or pharmacist for guidance. Those taking blood thinning medication, diabetes medication or PPIs such as omeprazole for acid reflux should take particular care with turmeric.

There’s still much to learn about the effects and interactions of turmeric. To date, much of the evidence has been drawn from animal and test tube studies with more research needed to evaluate its effects on human health.

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If you’re considering any major dietary changes or are thinking about taking supplements, please consult your GP or registered dietitian to ensure you do so without risk to your health.

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Jo Lewin works as a community nutritionist and private consultant. She is a Registered Nutritionist (Public Health) registered with the UKVRN. Follow her on Twitter @nutri_jo.

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All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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