When Marco Polo discovered turmeric on his travels through China in the 13th century, he declared it “a vegetable which has all the properties of true saffron, as well as the smell, the colour, and yet is not really saffron.” Turmeric has been used extensively in medicinal preparations or as a food-colouring agent since 600 BC. Nowadays, it is no longer regarded as a cheaper version of saffron but an exotic spice and colouring agent with outstanding health benefits.
The turmeric plant grows in tropical conditions, is closely related to ginger and has a similar-shaped, brilliant orange-coloured root. Once the root has been dried and ground, it becomes deep yellow in colour, with a distinctive earthy flavour. Curry just wouldn’t look or taste the same without it.
In Ancient China and India, turmeric was revered as an anti-inflammatory medicine to treat infections, digestive and respiratory problems, as well as many other conditions. The yellow pigment, curcumin, is the biologically most active compound in turmeric. A potent anti-inflammatory, curcumin may provide similar reductions in pain and swelling in arthritic conditions as prescription drugs, but without the side-effects. There is great interest in curcumin as a promising agent in other conditions which also have an inflammatory component, such as heart disease, obesity and Type 2 Diabetes.
A multitude of studies also suggest antioxidant, antiviral and antimicrobial activities. Interestingly, curcumin is substantially more bioavailable when consumed with piperine, a compound derived from black pepper.
In modern India, the popularity of turmeric is such that it is used in almost all vegetable and meat dishes. India also has one of the lowest rates of Alzheimer’s Disease. Researchers are now suggesting that curcumin may be involved in reducing oxidative damage, inflammation and the accumulation of plaque deposits in the brain.
In test tube and animal studies, curcumin also appears effective in cancer prevention. Curcumin affects cellular signalling pathways including those that mediate proliferation, invasion and metastasis. Scientists have demonstrated that curcumin suppresses specific proteins which promote abnormal inflammatory responses, implying the curry compound may inhibit the progression of cancer. However, research is still preliminary and human studies are needed to confirm curcumin’s potential in cancer prevention or treatment.
Turmeric is available as a spice or in tablets or capsules for therapeutic use. If pregnant, suffering from gallstones or other disorders of the bile duct, avoid consuming large amounts. When using turmeric in cooking, try to find an organically grown, non-irradiated version and store in a cool, dark and dry place. Turmeric was used to preserve food well before man-made preservatives were introduced. Add it to egg salad, brown rice, curries, fish and chicken dishes, lentils and salad dressings.
(From “49 Ways to Eat Yourself Well”, Martina Watts, published by Step Beach Press)