Turmeric: The Ancient Cure-All or Just a Flavorful Spice?

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Last year, I decided to get my yoga teaching certification. It was surprisingly labor-intensive, and I learned everything from the history of yoga and how to sequence a class, to anatomy and even Ayurveda. Now, as much as I respect the history of Ayurveda, I have a hard time squaring my understanding of science with its concepts. Nonetheless, when given the chance, I decided to immerse myself in it. This led me to trying “golden milk.” A sweet but peppery drink, its supposed benefits include boosting the immune system, thanks in part to turmeric (which can also spelled “tumeric”).

Hailing from India, turmeric is the dried root of the curcuma longa plant. Not only was it used for cooking, but it was also used in Ayurvedic medicine, a holistic medical system developed in India. It was used to cure a long list of ailments, such as congestion, healing wounds, alleviating joint pain, and aiding digestion. Due to its bright, yellow hue, which comes from curcumin, a chemical compound found in the root, turmeric was used to color food, as well as fabric. In terms of its flavor profile, turmeric tastes like a mix between ginger and pepper, and it adds subtle peppery notes to food.

Turmeric’s uses continue into today, in cooking as well as being a color additive in foods such as cheese and mustards. A member of the ginger family, turmeric has some nutritional benefits. A tablespoon contains 15 percent of your daily recommended intake of iron, 1.5 g of fiber, and even a small amount of protein.

So where do all the claims about health benefits come in? Well, here’s some good news: Some may be supported by science, while others, not so much. So let’s get to the positive first.

Remember curcumin, the chemical compound found in turmeric? It’s a polyphenol, a bioactive compound that has health benefits. Polyphenols are found in apples, pears, citrus, and some vegetables. Curcumin can boost cellular antioxidant defenses, as well as maintenance of eye and heart health.   

So what exactly does this mean? Well, it means it has health benefits, but those health benefits are not as powerful as some claim. The most egregious claim about turmeric is that it can cure cancer. At one point, there were some studies to support that, although they were only test tube and animal studies (which cannot be directly applied to humans).

Recently, many studies have come into question, as a prominent scientist who studied curcumin—specifically its effects on cancer—was found to be falsifying his results. He published his research in more than 500 peer-reviewed academic journals. His work was cited more than 1,000 times in other academic research, and it was used to support turmeric as an “official” cure for cancer on anti-science websites.

While this tale of junk science may taint your view of turmeric’s benefits, don’t let it discourage you. Turmeric’s polyphenol content is still healthful! Some claims about turmeric may be questionable, but you can continue to sprinkle this spice on everything from your poultry, red meat, seafood, vegetables, and even in beverages.

Turmeric can still be part of a healthful diet, though with anything, it cannot and should not be used as a cure-all.