Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a perennial herbaceous plant belonging to the Zingiberaceae family like ginger. In order to flourish it needs plenty of rainfall and temperatures ranging between 20 °C and 30 °C (68 °F and 86 °F). The plant is valued for its rhizomes, some of which are saved for propagation the following year. The leaves of the plant are long, oblong shaped, standing about one metre tall at full maturity.
The turmeric is derived from the root of the plant where the rhizomes mature under the foliage. The rhizome is brown skinned with a bright orange flesh. It has a slightly bitter, peppery flavour that is a cross between horseradish and mustard. After harvesting the rhizome it’s allowed to dry and ground to obtain the characteristic yellow turmeric powder.
Turmeric has been commonly used in Indian, Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian cooking for thousands of years. Turmeric can be used as a substitute for the significantly more costly saffron, but it is more pungent and has to be used sparingly. It also has a long history of use in Indian ayurvedic and Chinese medicines in addition to being used as a textile dye. Turmeric has only recently caught the attention of western medical practitioners who are finally recognizing the benefits of the spice.
History of Turmeric
While the exact origin of turmeric is not known, it is believed it most likely originated in South or Southeast Asia, probably in the western portion of India. The plant has been harvested for more than five thousand years, and played a vital role in the Eastern cultures. The turmeric plant does not produce seeds, it is sterile. It is believed to have developed by vegetative propagation of wild turmeric and other close relatives. It appeared in China by 700 AD and by 800 AD it reached East Africa and on to West Africa by 1200. By the 18th century it reached Jamaica.
Initially the plant was cultivated as a dye, but later it came to be valued for its condiment value. Marco Polo marveled at the vegetable that had qualities so similar to saffron in the 13th century that he referred to it as Indian saffron, useful for dying cloth.
While the ancient Greeks were familiar with turmeric, unlike ginger it never gained popularity in the West for culinary or medicinal values. It was none the less used to make orange to yellow dyes. In 1870s it was discovered that the root powder turned reddish brown when exposed to alkaline chemicals. This finding led to the development of turmeric paper used for testing alkalinity.
It wasn’t until the twentieth century that western herbalists picked up on turmeric. Just a handful of contemporary herbalists recommended turmeric up until the 1980s, and even then for limited use such as a liver tonic or menstrual issues. All that changed in the 1990s when a number of renowned herbalists started to endorse the use of turmeric for a number of major health issues.
Health Benefits of Turmeric
In some cultures turmeric is referred to as “Queen of Spices” due to the wide range of benefits it offers. It provides antiviral, antioxidant, antifungal, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and anti carcinogenic benefits. The majority of its benefits come from the chief ingredient, curcumin. This component has been widely researched by scientists and is commonly employed in a variety of drugs and pharmaceuticals due to it therapeutic value.
Curcumin is stronger than vitamin C and five to eight times stronger than vitamin E in terms of immunity boosting abilities. According to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Centre, Houston, USA, even in low levels curcumin enhances antibody responses. Hence the reported benefits curcumin offers for allergy, asthma, arthrosclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, diabetes and cancer may be due to the compound’s ability to modulate the immune system.
Free radicals cause oxidative damage to DNA and proteins that can lead to a number of chronic diseases like atherosclerosis, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. Curcumin normalizes some inflammatory factors like as kappaB, enzymes and cytokines thus deterring the progress of these diseases.
The curcumin in turmeric protects against liver disease in two ways. It acts as an antioxidant blocking activation of NF- kappaB which in turn leads to the reduction of the inflammatory cytokines. In a separate study published in the Fundamental & clinical Pharmacology journal, curcumin was able to prevent and reverse cirrhosis based most probably on its ability to cut down on TGF-beta expression. The study suggests that curcumin may be an effective antifibrotic and fibrolytic in treating chronic hepatic disorders.
According to a Thai study published in the journal Diabetes Care, researchers discovered that people with pre-diabetes who consumed curcumin capsules had fewer chances of developing type 2 diabetes compared to people who did not take curcumin. Drew Tortoriello, a research scientist at Naomi Berrie diabetes Centre at Columbia University Medical Centre states that this may be due to turmeric reducing insulin resistance and preventing type 2 diabetes. He further states that since curcumin is not easily bio-available, it is a good idea to add turmeric powder to food.
Turmeric may help with weight loss and help to cut down on the incidence of obesity related ailments. Obesity related inflammation is partly due to immune cells known as macrophages found in fat tissue in the entire body. These cells give rise to cytokines that inflame organs like the islets of the pancreas, heart and increase insulin resistance in liver and muscle. It is believed that turmeric restrains the quantity and activity of these cells thereby lowering harmful effects of obesity.
Turmeric powder is an age old home remedy for chronic cough and throat irritations. Researchers at Cancer Biology Research Centre in South Dakota, U.S.A found curcumin stifled cervical cancer cells by changing HPV-linked pathways in cervical cancer cells.
Nutritional Value of Turmeric
One teaspoon of turmeric power (2 grams) has about seven calories. It also supplies 8% of the daily recommended allowance of manganese, 5% of the iron, 2% vitamin B6 and 1% of each of the following vitamin C, niacin, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, zinc and copper. While this may not seem like much, remember these values are for just one teaspoon of the spice.
Uses of Turmeric
Turmeric has been used as a household spice and a home remedy for centuries. In fact turmeric is not toxic even at very high doses. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has done their own clinical trials with turmeric and declared its active element, curcumin as safe. This is why turmeric and its components are allowed to be used in things like cheese, butter, mustard, cereals and other food items in the U.S
In India it is used in beauty products and employed at spiritual rituals. It is also added to canned beverages, dairy goods, biscuits, and numerous other food products. Some other uses of turmeric include:
- Turmeric added to cottage cheese can extend its shelf life by roughly twelve days.
- Sprinkle turmeric powder near your home’s entry points to scare away insects, ants and termites.
- Add a pinch of turmeric to creams and body scrubs to enhance glow.
- Add a teaspoonful of the powder in smoothies to get all its benefits.
- Turmeric tea may help you live longer. Bring four cups of water to the boil and add one teaspoon of turmeric powder. Allow to simmer for ten minutes. Add honey according to taste if you dislike the taste of the turmeric.
Curcumin is an antioxidant that has received a lot of attention recently. Laboratory studies show that the compound interferes with the pathways of cancer cell development and spread. In rats curcumin has been found to stop the formation of cancer causing enzymes. Additionally curcumin kills cancer cells in laboratory dishes while slowing the growth of the cells that survive, and shrink tumors.
The effect of turmeric on irritable bowel syndrome was studied by giving tablets of standardized turmeric extract to patients daily for eight weeks. It was found that the prevalence of the disorder decreased significantly along with the associated stomach discomfort and pain.
In a clinical trial with 45 patients suffering from peptic ulcers, the patients with ulcers were given capsules filled with turmeric. They consumed dosages of two, 300 mg capsules five times a day. After four week of receiving the treatment, ulcers disappeared in 48% of the patients. After twelve weeks of treatment, 76% of the patients were free from ulcers.
Sixty two patients with external cancerous lesions were treated with an ethanol extract of turmeric (as well as an ointment of curcumin). It was found that in 90% of the patients the smell disappeared with treatment, and the itching disappeared in almost all of the cases. In 10% of the cases there was a reduction in the size of the lesion and pain as well.
The German Commission E, which is responsible for determining herbs that may be prescribed in Germany, has approved turmeric for digestive issues. One double-blind study using placebo-controlled methods found that turmeric cut down on the symptoms of bloating and gas in people with indigestion5. Turmeric is also believed to prevent plaque buildup that can block arteries and lead to heart attack or stroke. In animal studies turmeric decreased LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. Since turmeric prevents the clumping of platelets, it may also stop the formation of blood clots along the artery walls.