If there’s one spice that’s having a photo-op moment, it is turmeric. Its deep-orange hue and raw, earthy character grace lattes and milks as well as many dishes beyond the curries of its native India.
The main reason for turmeric’s popularity lies in an impressive list of potential health benefits.
“I’m all about food as medicine, and there are over 700 medical studies on turmeric,” says Jennifer Iserloh, a health coach who blogs as the Skinny Chef and has written a number of books, including The Superfood Alchemy Cookbook (Da Capo).
Despite its impressive resume, turmeric can be a tricky ingredient to work with in the kitchen.
“Most chefs don’t get excited about the taste of turmeric because it has an astringent flavor,” says Iserloh, who suggests not using any more than a half-teaspoon at a time.
There is one secret to using turmeric successfully, at least from a health standpoint.Adding black pepper helps improve absorption of curcumin, turmeric’s main beneficial component. Click To Tweet
Iserloh also suggests combining turmeric with fat (“I like to combine turmeric with things that are sweet, fatty and savory,” she says) or heating it to make the curcumin more absorbable.
Looking for other ways to work turmeric into your meals?
“It’s fabulous with chocolate, as in truffles and energy bites,” says Iserloh. “It would work really well with grass-fed butter and black pepper on corn; use organic corn, because a lot of corn is GMO. It would also work well with berries: blueberries, raspberries, blackberries.”
In addition to Indian cuisine, turmeric is also a natural fit for Middle Eastern dishes as well as roasted vegetables and meats.
Turmeric is available both dried (ground powder and dried root) and fresh (it looks like ginger, only smaller and more deeply colored). Dried turmeric should have a rich aroma; the fresh roots should be plump and firm. Keep in mind that curry powder is not a direct equivalent: While this commonly available product does include turmeric, it contains other spices as well.
Both fresh and dried roots can be grated; fresh roots can also be cut into coins, cubes or matchsticks. Depending on how mature a fresh root is, you may want to scrape off the outer skin.
Still not sold? Here are 10 specific reasons, both health-related and culinary, to make turmeric a regular part of your diet.
Turmeric Fights Inflammation and Joint Pain
This is reason number one: Turmeric “is the gold standard of anti-inflammatory spices,” says IserlohTurmeric ingredient curcumin has been able to help ease joint problems in studies, in some cases as effectively as prescription drugs. Click To Tweet
What’s more, inflammation is tied to chronic disease of all kinds—making turmeric a dietary must-have as you age. (Note that if you have gastric or gallbladder issues it’s best to discuss turmeric use with your healthcare practitioner beforehand.)
Turmeric May Boost Your Brainpower
Inflammation plays a role in dulled mental reactions, and here again researchers have been impressed by curcumin’s ability to enhance memory and cognition. Turmeric may also benefit the brain by improving cerebral blood flow.Scientists believe turmeric may actually help slow the aging process overall. Click To Tweet
Turmeric Tames Tummy Troubles
Ayurveda, India’s system of traditional medicine, has long used turmeric to improve digestion and dispel gas. This usage has been bolstered by studies showing the spice’s ability to promote GI healing. It has also exhibited a beneficial effect on health-promoting microbes in the intestines—a key point in turmeric’s favor, given what we’re learning about the gut microbiome and general well-being.
Turmeric May Cut Your Cancer Risk
Helping you dodge the Big C is another one of curcumin’s possible powers.One study cited turmeric's “great potential in the prevention of cancer” due to curcumin’s ability to disrupt malignancy development. Click To Tweet
Curcumin may also help ease chemo-related bone marrow suppression, which can lead to fatigue and reduced infection resistance.
Turmeric Acts as an Antioxidant
Free radicals are rogue molecules—produced by normal biological processes along with exposure to toxins—that can go on a tissue-
damaging rampage. Turmeric can help tame this biological riot, thus helping to maintain cellular health.
Turmeric May Aid Weight Loss
One problem with carrying too many pounds is that you are more likely to be chronically inflamed, and we’ve already seen how turmeric can help quell inflammation. In addition, scientists reviewing 21 studies involving more than 1,600 participants found that curcumin intake “significantly reduced” weight and body mass index, a rough measure of body fat.
Turmeric Adds a Pop of Culinary Color
Sitting down to a good-looking plate of food enhances one’s enjoyment of a meal, and turmeric is one of the prettiest spices in the rack. Let it brighten up egg dishes, rice and soups.Potatoes, cauliflower and tofu show off turmeric beautifully. Click To Tweet
Turmeric Fortifies Your Morning Cup
Want to supercharge your a.m. coffee or tea? Follow Iserloh’s lead: She adds turmeric, black pepper and organic heavy cream (vegans can use coconut cream) to her brew. Or simmer turmeric in water for 20 minutes, then stir in some lemon juice, honey and ginger for a comforting immune booster.
Turmeric Plays Well with Others
As Iserloh notes, using turmeric in spice blends “works as a foil against turmeric’s astringency. For example, I use it with ginger because I love the taste of ginger.” In addition to ginger (and, of course, black pepper), other spices that pair well with turmeric include cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, fennel seed, fenugreek, garlic and mustard seed.
Turmeric Has a Track Record
We need to document turmeric’s benefits through research, but remember that it has been used for 4,000 years and is eaten daily by millions. Turmeric wouldn’t have played such a central role in India’s food culture and healing lore for so long if it hadn’t proven its worth.
Curcumin to Go
While working more turmeric into your diet is definitely a good thing, it can’t hurt to put this spice’s star ingredient, curcumin, to work directly in supplemental form. For maximum benefit, look for a USDA Organic, non-GMO product, without any artificial colors or preservatives, standardized to 95% curcuminoids.