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, which have been widely researched and proven by a range of studies.
Here are the 5 main health benefits of turmeric
1. Contains bioactive compounds with antioxidant 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.
2. Acts an an anti-inflammatory
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.
3. May help to ease arthritis
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.
4. May support cognitive function
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.
5. May lower the risk of cardiovascular disease
Some studies suggest that the anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of curcumin may help reverse some of the steps in the heart disease process, such as atherosclerosis and atrial arrhythmias. Curcumin also improves the function of the enthothelium which in turn helps to regulate blood pressure, blood clotting and various other heart disease factors
Potential further benefits and uses of turmeric
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 and cancer to Alzheimer’s disease. However, more clinical studies are required before these health claims can be confirmed.
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. See our collection of turmeric recipes for more inspiration.
How beneficial is turmeric?
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.
How to select and store turmeric
Turmeric is available as a ground powder and, like ginger, is available as the fresh rhizome bought in food shops. Fresh turmeric should be free of dark spots and be crisp. It may be stored in the fridge where it will keep for a month. Turmeric powder should be stored in a cool dark, dry place where it will keep for up to a year.
Since its deep orange colour can easily stain, avoid getting it on clothing. To avoid a permanent stain, quickly wash the affected area with soap and water.
This article was last updated on 8 August 2018 by Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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