Turmeric is the 4,000-year-old spice that gives Indian curry dishes their flavor and yellow color. One of its components, curcumin, is widely used to color mustards, margarines, butters, and cheeses, as well as cosmetics. Incidentally, like activated charcoal, turmeric is an ancient cure-all turned contemporary craze.
Though the plant looks something like a carrot, turmeric is a rhizome, which means the portion that’s making headlines is in its rootstalk, a sort of underground stem. It's been labeled a miracle anti-inflammatory and antioxidant and has shown clinical promise in treating a range of conditions, from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to depression and even a number of types of cancer. Chasing these benefits, people are drinking it in "golden lattes," incorporating it into facial masks, and scrambling it into eggs, among other methods of consumption. But is the spice, which was all but ignored outside of Indian cuisine a mere two years ago, worthy of its superfood status today?
What We Know—and What We Don’t
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center reports, “Scientists have determined that turmeric has many biological activities, although they do not fully understand exactly how it exerts these effects.” Studies have shown that curcuminoids, compounds within turmeric, are a powerful antioxidant that are also capable of “[lowering] the levels of two enzymes in the body that cause inflammation.” This can be useful against any of the conditions mentioned above and more—if scientists can figure out how to get it to the body effectively.
Currently, one of the main scientific concerns around turmeric is its bioavailability. In layman’s terms, it’s difficult for the body to absorb significant quantities of turmeric, even when a larger dose is consumed. Some suggest aiding absorption by consuming the spice warm with black pepper and a healthy fat (like milk). Turmeric's curcumin properties binding with dairy milk casein proteins in liquid solutions has been backed up by chemical studies—hence the golden latte trend—but research is limited on how this reaction plays out in the human body. Dairy milk alternatives for golden lattes—like coconut, almond and soy milks—don't contain casein, so keep this in mind when you opt for vegan and dairy-free recipes.
There isn’t yet enough research to soundly support clinical use. There have been many studies exploring the medicinal uses of turmeric, but few on humans, and not enough with large sample sizes and repeated results.
Someday, turmeric may be proven to provide the benefits it is touted for today, but science takes time, and for now, researchers don’t know enough about turmeric to recommend it over more traditional Western medicines that have been proven effective (even if they do have side effects that studies have yet to see with turmeric).
Dinner’s Still On
The good news: Experts agree that there is no harm in consuming turmeric as a food. When eaten consistently and in reasonable doses, it’s possible that some of the purported benefits may come to pass. But when eaten in large doses as a remedy or preventative measure, there are risks to consider. Turmeric can cause upset stomach or ulcers; may thin blood; and can lower blood sugar, which could be problematic for diabetics. As with taking any supplement, check with your health care provider before embarking on a nutrition regimen.
It’s heartening to see contemporary science confirm some of what people have suspected for ages about natural remedies. We can hope that when modern research gets further in its exploration of turmeric, there will be even more good news to celebrate.
In the meantime, pass the curry, please.