Nutritionist Alessandra Felice explains how turmeric has more to offer other than popping in a curry…
Turmeric is a beautiful plant that originated from India and South-East Asia but was also known in the ancient Greece and Roman Empires. It has been widely utilised for hundreds of years for both culinary and medicinal uses and with good reasons.
Traditionally, it has been used as a food colouring agent for sauces, drinks, desserts and of course as a major component of curry powder mixes. But it has a particularly long history of being resorted to as a healing agent and a magical herb, thanks to curcumin, its main active component which gives it its vibrant colour.
Ayurveda, an ancient Indian medicinal practice, values turmeric as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agent, a digestive aid as it stimulates the digestive fire in the gut, a skin remedy, healing for liver problems and for the treatment of wound healing. In Eastern countries it’s considered a sacred plant and it’s no wonder that in recent years it has become more and more popular in our western side of the world as well. I’m sure you’ve heard of golden lattes, turmeric healthy shots with ginger and lemon, and you’ve probably seen yellow looking energy balls and smoothies. Among all the superfoods trends, this is definitely one that it would be wise to follow and hopefully it’s here to stay.
Let’s take a look at this amazing spice’s properties and health benefits, as curcumin has been shown to have a wide range of therapeutic effects.
One of its main properties is being strongly anti-inflammatory. It is so powerful that it matches the effectiveness of some anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen, but without the side effects. And it does so by blocking pro-inflammatory molecules in the cells so that the inflammatory pathways are interrupted and systemic inflammation decreases.
It also has a high antioxidant power to it that protects our cells from free radicals and oxidative damage that can be very harmful for fatty acids, proteins and DNA function. And curcumin can actually boost the activity of the body’s own antioxidant enzymes.
These anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities makes this spice the perfect preventative aid for reducing the risk of neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s Disease, and others such as heart disease, diabetes, and certain autoimmune-related conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Turmeric is an excellent liver tonic, stimulating its activity and bile production and so improving the body’s ability to digest fats. It’s considered as a digestive bitter and a carminative (which means gas relieving) as it can improve digestion, reduce gas and soothe bloating.
And let’s not forget its amazing antimicrobial effects against bacteria, viruses and fungi, which make it a powerful tool to fight and prevent infections.
But don’t labour under the illusion that turmeric can only be taken internally in a supplement form or as a culinary spice, fresh or dried. Because it can actually be applied topically to the skin.
Powders and poultices that will temporarily stain the skin have been used for centuries for their well-known benefits towards wound healing, scar fading, preventing dry skin, treating skin conditions such as eczema and acne, and retarding the ageing process, reducing frown lines.
In South East Asia it is a regular practice to have massages with it mixed with essential oils as well as scrubs and face masks. And who doesn’t want a golden glow?
Spices for health
If you’re asking yourself how to incorporate this magical root into your diet, do not worry as it’s so easy to mix it into both sweet and savoury recipes.
Use it the traditional way and add it to curries and rice dishes to bring colour and mild flavour to a pot of plain rice or a fancier pilaf. Sprinkle it onto sautéed greens like kale, collards and cabbage. But even on roasted ones like cauliflower, potatoes and root vegetables paired with ginger and cumin. And make sure to use it in tofu scrambles to give it that golden colour or dairy-free pastry creams and custards.
Remember that turmeric is extremely strong, and actually gets stronger when cooked, so a little bit goes a long way. An important tip is to wear gloves or use measuring spoons when working with it as it will stain your fingers and your clothes if you’re not careful.
Kick start your day
Turmeric is the ideal booster to add to your smoothies and juices. It pairs well with orange, carrot, pumpkin, red bell pepper, raspberries, goji berries and citrus. But also to warming lattes and hot chocolates. Mix it with cinnamon, ginger and coconut milk along with a pinch of pepper to sip on a delicious golden latte or add it to hot chocolate with a pinch of nutmeg and cloves. And if you like to have porridge for breakfast, stir in a bit of this beautiful spice to have a creamy and warming bright yellow bowl to start your day or blend it with your mashed avocado on toast.
Always remember to have turmeric with healthy fats like coconut since many of its essential compounds are fat-soluble, or try it with a pinch of pepper as it improves its bioavailability and absorption.
Try an alternative spice
If you’re asking yourself if there are other spices and plants with similar benefits to this golden root, rest assured, there are. And you probably already have them in your cupboard. Some of them are ginger, cinnamon, cloves, sage and rosemary.
Ginger is another spice that’s been used for centuries for inflammation, digestion, sore throats, and to combat muscle aches and pain.
The potent antioxidants that it contains inhibit production of the free radicals that cause inflammation and pain, acting like anti-inflammatory drugs. It’s been shown to be very useful in reducing arthritic pain as well.
Fresh ginger is a great addition to teas with a squeeze of lemon juice, or used in fruit and veggie juices. But you can also use it in savoury dishes like stir-fries and Asian inspired soups and curries.
Sweet side of life
Cinnamon has varied compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that can lessen the risk of cellular damage and chronic diseases.
They inhibit proteins involved in pro-inflammatory genes, and genes involved in immune growth and cell death responses.
Of course this spice is best known to be featured in sweet recipes like cakes, cookies, chocolate and all different kinds of bakes goods. But try it out in stews and bean dishes to add a touch of sweetness and deepen the flavour.
Cloves contains similar compounds to cinnamon and protects the body by blocking enzymes that cause inflammation, which are usually targeted by conventional drugs like ibuprofen. Cloves are also extremely rich in antioxidants and have strong anti-fungal power. Try applying clove oil locally to soothe toothaches or chew on a few cloves buds.
Pop a few in recipes like mulled wine, poached fruit and hot chocolate or pumpkin spice recipes for the winter and seasonal cookies, muffins and sweet breads.
Rosemary and sage contain some of the same antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds, and act by increasing the activity of superoxide dismutase, one of the most potent antioxidants in the body to fight chronic inflammation.
These herbs can be used cooked or fresh in soothing teas, roasted vegetables dishes or stews, but can also be added to dressings and sauces for greens and grain salads, adding a unique flavour to them.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with all these amazing spices. Start with a tiny bit and see how you like the taste, then work your way up from there. You won’t regret injecting your life with some spiced plant power!
The heart of the matter
This plant has been shown to successfully reduce cholesterol levels as it inhibits platelet aggregation and arterial plaque build-up resulting in improved heart health.