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Melanie Leyshon is the editor of Healthy Food Guide magazine. She's a flexitarian and couldn’t get through the week without yogurt and yoga.

Turmeric in herbal teas and lattes – really? The spice is turning up in all sorts of recipes besides curries thanks to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits

 

The perceived benefits of this spice, dubbed ‘Indian saffron’, are plentiful. It’s actually the yellow pigment in turmeric, called curcumin that’s thought to bring about so many health benefits. Research shows these include helping with Alzheimer’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease – and it may also help to lower cholesterol.

The potential for cancer protection

There may even be a role for this spice in helping to protect against or treat cancer. Ancient ayurvedic medicine reveres turmeric, and now emerging research on its anti-cancer and carcinogen-blocking powers looks promising, says Cancer Research UK.

So far trials have been mainly lab based, but there is cause for more trials on humans. Curcumin seems to be able to kill cancer cells and prevent more from growing, with the best effects seen with breast cancer, bowel cancer, stomach cancer and skin cancer cells, says Cancer Research UK.

New York physician and author Michael Greger is getting excited about this ‘potent stuff’, too. ‘Since 1987, the National Cancer Institute has tested more than 1,000 different compounds for cancer-preventing activity,’ says Michael. And guess what? ‘The most promising is curcumin,’ he says.

Fresh, powdered or supplements?

It’s heartening to know these results aren’t based on using fancy turmeric supplements, but on bog-standard powder. Doses used in human studies have ranged from tsp up to 2tbsp a day, says Michael. Indian writer and TV chef Anjum Anand says that from a cook’s point of view, using the powdered version from your local supermarket is as good as fresh, too. This ‘super spice’ is considered ‘top of the pyramid’ in India, says Anjum.

Make it milky

Anjum makes a traditional milky drink when she’s feeling poorly, and it’s this type of drink that’s catching on in fashionable cafés. ‘Heat ½tsp turmeric per glass of milk along with pinches of black pepper, cardamom pods and ginger slices,’ she says. ‘Bring to the boil, then cool and strain. Serve warm, sweetened with a little honey.’

Don’t omit the black pepper – it boosts absorption of curcumin, explains Michael. ‘Even the smallest pinch can significantly boost curcumin levels in blood,’ he says. That’s why curry powders also contain black pepper. And a little fat helps, too. Hence the ghee in curries (although we recommend using unsaturated fat options such as sunflower or olive oil).

How to eat more of it

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Add turmeric to omelettes, soups and lentil dishes, too. ‘A friend puts it in fresh pasta dough to give it a lovely colour,’ says Anjum. ‘Even easier, add it to the water when cooking rice or mix into salad dressings. I’ve even known people who sprinkle it into porridge.’