Turmeric as Health Food?

Feedloader (Clickability)

Amanda recently wrote about cinnamon having a reputation as a good food for healthy eyes, and it got me thinking about spices. I tend to think of them merely as flavor, but cinnamon isn't the only spice that people are investigating for its possible health benefits. I was looking for a recipe for sweet potato curry the other night and remembered another spice that some people think of as a health food: turmeric.

Turmeric is a rhizome, like ginger, that is native to South Asia and used commonly in curries. It's famous for its yellow color, which stains almost everything it comes in contact with—even your skin.

Last year in TIME magazine, Dr. Scott Haig penned a piece about turmeric relieving pain in a patient of his who took capsules of the stuff daily. (The story was anecdotal and rightly labeled "one doctor's opinion.") Turmeric made Oprah's list as a top 25 superfood for 2010.

Asian cultures have been using the spice for centuries. In India, turmeric has been used in Ayurveda medical practices as a "blood purifier." Traditionally, it is ingested to treat indigestion, gas, liver and urinary tract diseases. It is also used as a salve for skin diseases and inhaled to alleviate the symptoms of the common cold.

Recently, curcumin, a chemical found in turmeric and other spices, has been the subject of research testing its effect on cancer, cystic fibrosis and Alzheimer’s disease among others. A cancer research center in Ireland found that curcumin began to kill cancer cells in 24 hours. Curcumin has also been tested, with some success, as an anti-inflammatory. Most of the research is still preliminary, but it might yield some interesting results.

My guess is that with the Oprah effect, jars of turmeric will be flying off the shelves this year. I'd resist the urge to pop pills of the yellow stuff until more substantial evidence comes along, however. But having an extra curry dish here and there couldn't hurt. Turmeric isn't just for curry either, I put it on baked chicken breasts and to add some kick to rice.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.