It seems that every year there's another new "superfood" guaranteed to improve our health in every way. Some of their claims are valid, but others not so much. For the last several years, turmeric has been high on the list of panaceas recommended by your friends and relatives — and, yes, this time by your doctor, too — because turmeric really does have proven health benefits. And turmeric is, of course, an essential component of many tasty Indian and Middle Eastern dishes. You can find turmeric in a variety of forms.
The Types of Turmeric
Fresh Turmeric Root
Turmeric is a plant grown for the most part in India and Southeast Asia, where the spice derived from its root has been used — both as a flavoring and as a nutritional supplement — for many centuries.
In general, "fresh is best," and that slogan usually holds true with turmeric root, since it has nutritional components that store-bought turmeric powder does not. A fresh turmeric root is similar in appearance to ginger root. Under its tough skin is a moist pith that can be prepared in a number of ways for consumption. It's not as easily come by as turmeric powder, but you can often find it in large supermarkets and Indian or Asian groceries.
The fresh turmeric root varieties most readily available in markets are the yellow turmeric root (Curcuma longa) and the white turmeric root (Curcuma zedoaria).
Although both types of turmeric plant have anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antioxidant and potential cancer-fighting properties, the yellow root has more beneficial curcuminoids present than the white, and, in general, its medicinal properties are stronger. The salutary effects of the white root derive mainly from its essential oils.
The taste of fresh turmeric is piquant and a little bittersweet, with the white root usually quite a bit more bitter than the yellow. Though not everyone loves either one at first mouthful, any kind of turmeric lends itself to combining with other ingredients to create delicious variations in flavor, from savory to sweet. In fact, the health benefits of turmeric can be enhanced by the addition of other components that assist in your body's absorption of curcumin, the substance in turmeric believed to reduce inflammation. Black pepper and vegetable oils are especially helpful for this purpose.
Try using the back of a regular spoon to peel turmeric root. Scrape in a sweeping motion away from you; you might be surprised at how easy this method is compared to using a peeler (works with ginger root too).
Most recipes call for turmeric in a ground or grated form. Remember, though, that in grating the fresh root, there's a loss of valuable juices. Chopping the root into a fine dice and then running it through an electric grinder (one that's safe for wet ingredients) might be a better method.
The best way to store fresh turmeric is to peel it, cut it into 2-inch segments and wrap these in tightly closed freezer bags. You can then take out only what you’ll use on any given day. Not only will the root stay viable for a few months, it’s also much easier to grate when frozen and will lose less of its valuable juices in the process.
The Two Types of Turmeric Powder
For most Americans, the most familiar form of turmeric is undoubtedly the turmeric powder found in their supermarket's spice aisle. It's widely available and easy to use, and it potentially has health benefits similar to the fresh root. So, if you can't (or prefer not to) source the fresh root, that's perfectly OK.
There are two grades of turmeric powder. The most widely available is known as Madras turmeric. This mild yellow spice has an average curcumin content of 3.5 percent.
The orange-colored spice known as Alleppey turmeric, with a higher curcumin content that averages 6.5 percent, is also deeper in flavor. It lends an extra dimension to many dishes, especially savory curries and stews.
The curcumin content is important. While there are approximately 100 compounds in turmeric, this anti-inflammatory substance is its most critical element. You must use turmeric powder along with an additional ingredient — preferably black pepper or vegetable oil — to properly absorb the curcumin (it doesn't take much)!
How to Prepare Golden Paste and Golden Milk
Golden paste is one of those preparations that are good to have on hand, ready to use for weekday meals. It can be made either from the fresh root or from turmeric powder.
When using fresh turmeric, peel the root, then finely chop root segments to equal a total of about 12 inches. Add to the blender along with enough water to achieve a pasty consistency after a few rounds of pulsing. Transfer to a saucepan and heat at a low temperature for a few minutes, stirring constantly until it thickens.
Remain watchful and don't allow the paste to burn (you can add more water if the mixture looks too dry). Remove the mixture from the heat, add about 2 teaspoons each of vegetable oil and freshly ground pepper. If desired, add ground ginger and/or cinnamon to taste. Mix well. When cooled, store it in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator.
Making golden paste with turmeric powder is even easier. In a saucepan, add ¼-cup turmeric powder to ½-cup water. Heat at low temperature, stirring constantly, until thickened. Remove from the heat and stir in ¾-teaspoon freshly ground black pepper and a scant 1/3-cup vegetable oil, until thoroughly blended. Cool.
If the only turmeric you’re familiar with is the standard 2-ounce jar found in the supermarket spice aisle, and your recipe calls for larger quantities, you’ll be pleased to find out that you can buy quality organic turmeric in bulk — and inexpensively, at that. If you are near an Asian or Indian market, try there first. Otherwise, you can order it online. Keep it well-sealed in a cool, dark place and don’t use it past its use-by date.
Golden paste in a tightly sealed container should keep well in the refrigerator for a few weeks. It can also be frozen and used a little bit at a time. Wrap small blocks of the paste in wax paper; fill a freezer bag with these packets and seal tightly. Frozen golden paste should last for two months or more.
Golden paste can be taken by itself in "doses" of a teaspoonful or so three times a day or used as a component in recipes.
Golden milk has been popular in Asia for centuries. It's not only a good way to get turmeric in your diet, it's also a pleasant, easy bedtime drink that's especially comforting in cold weather. Just heat a cup of milk (dairy or plant-based) and add a teaspoon of golden paste. Remove the mixture from the heat, add a teaspoon of vegetable oil and honey to taste. Mix well and enjoy.
For a healthy boost to your meals, add a teaspoon or so of golden paste to salad dressing, soup or rice. Blend it into your smoothies, too.
Using Turmeric in Recipes
Turmeric is, of course, a staple in curried dishes (and a major component in curry powder). So it shouldn't be surprising that it can be part of many a savory vegetable or meat-based dish.
What might be more of a surprise is that types of turmeric powder can also play a great supporting role in desserts, including Middle Eastern cakes and cookies. The spice combines well with other favorite dessert spices such as cinnamon and ginger. Mix in some honey or maple syrup and experiment a bit with puddings and ice cream toppings. Several recipes using turmeric and turmeric paste can be found via the Turmeric for Health website, but feel free to experiment on your own.
More About Curcumin and Curcuminoids
Laboratory studies conducted with animals have demonstrated the protective effects turmeric can have against colon, stomach, pancreatic and skin cancers. Even though curcumin may be the most important component in turmeric, other compounds known as curcuminoids also have been found to have anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antioxidant and, possibly, even cancer-fighting properties.
Other reported benefits are not so easy to prove in the laboratory. Many turmeric enthusiasts claim that the spice has helped them with their mental alertness, memory and general sense of well-being, for example, but these benefits can be difficult to quantify.
So, if you want to try out turmeric for its medicinal properties, can you simply have curry for dinner every week and hope for the best? The answer is a firm maybe. It all depends on how the spice is consumed. Due to problems with absorption, eating ground turmeric alone won't do much. Don't forget that by adding black pepper or oil, you'll increase the efficacy of curcumin exponentially. This is certainly easy to do when it comes to making curries since you're almost sure to be sauteing with oil. Ghee works too.
Turmeric as a Supplement
As much as you like turmeric as an ingredient in your favorite dishes, you may not want to have it every day for dinner. Of course, you can have a spoonful of golden paste or a cup of golden milk instead, but many people who use turmeric primarily for its health benefits prefer a strictly measured dose in the form of a supplement.
These days, you can find turmeric supplements in just about any drugstore or supermarket in the form of extracts, capsules and tablets. To find your best option, compare the properties of the various brands.
Choose a supplement that increases what's known as its bioavailability. This can be done with the addition of black pepper to the mix, just as you do in your homemade turmeric concoctions. Piperine is the active ingredient of black pepper that improves absorption, also known by the trademarked name BioPerine. This ingredient offers the highest degree of increased absorption available on the market.
Curcumin is not regulated by the FDA. However, most reputable companies list the amounts of curcumin and piperine in their products, as well as any other additives. Compare the curcumin amounts of different brands. Sometimes, ginger or stabilizing curcuminoids are in the mix — and that's a good thing. What you don't want are "fillers" that add nothing beneficial.
If this is a factor in your decision-making, organic, non-GMO varieties of turmeric are available.
How Safe Is Turmeric?
Generally speaking, turmeric is regarded as safe. However, in some circumstances, consumption is not recommended. Although turmeric may inhibit the growth of cancerous tumors, it may also interfere with the effectiveness of chemotherapy. Turmeric enhances the efficacy of blood thinners, which could increase the risk of bleeding — particularly during surgery. High doses of turmeric may result in nausea or ulcers.
If you're considering taking turmeric regularly as a supplement, consult your doctor first, just as you would about any other addition to your over-the-counter supplement regimen.
- Everyday Health: What Is Turmeric (Curcumin)? The Lowdown on the Benefits of the Golden Spice, and How to Get Your Fix
- WebMD: Turmeric (Curcumin)
- Seattle Times: Does trendy turmeric live up to the hype?
- Mayo Clinic News Network: Mayo Clinic Minute: Are there health benefits to taking turmeric?
- Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: Turmeric
- Cook's Illustrated: Tasting Ground Turmeric
- Turmeric for Health: Let Us Not Make Taking Turmeric a Task But Part of Life