Exploring Turmeric: The Ancient Golden Spice of Meals and Medication

Updated on June 26, 2019
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Exploring food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

For thousands of years, turmeric has been revered not only as a spice but also for its medicinal qualities.
For thousands of years, turmeric has been revered not only as a spice but also for its medicinal qualities. | Source

Their house had been a spice shop a hundred years ago, and it still smelled of cinnamon and turmeric and saffron and garlic and a little sweat. The perfect hardwood floors had been walked on by visitors from India and China and everywhere, bringing everything spicy in the world. If Patricia closed her eyes and breathed deeply, she could imagine the people unloading wooden foil-lined crates stamped with names of cities like Marrakesh and Bombay.

— Charlie Jane Anders, All the Birds in the Sky

The Ancient Spice

It is thought that turmeric sprang forth from the forests of South Asia; it grows wild in Java and Indonesia. For thousands of years (at least 4,500) it has been revered not only as a spice but also for its medicinal qualities.

Near New Delhi, pots thought to be from as early as 2,500 B.C. contain residues of garlic, ginger, and turmeric. It was around 500 B.C. that is was used in Ayurveda (an Indian philosophy of natural healing) medicine.

"It probably reached China by 700 A.D., East Africa by 800 A.D., West Africa by 1200 A.D., and Jamaica in the eighteenth century. In 1280, Marco Polo described this spice, marveling at a vegetable that exhibited qualities so similar to that of saffron."

Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects, Chapter 13 (National Center for Biotechnology Information, NIH)

Before turmeric was gleaned for healing, it was prized because of the vibrant color it imparts. Buddhist monks wear robes of brilliant yellow; the color resembles saffron but the use of turmeric is just as effective and much less costly. In Indian culture, a string necklace coated with turmeric paste is tied around the bride’s neck by her groom. This mangala sutra colors her skin and indicates to all who see it that she is a married woman.

Golden Earth

In winter, the landscape appears barren—but just below the surface of the earth there is life. The rhizomes of Curcuma longa are swelling and storing nutrients. As the soil warms, stems push upward and one by one leaf buds swell and unfurl. The monsoons begin and a sturdy stalk emerges from the center of the plant crowned by waxy funnel-shaped flowers. When the rains subside the plant begins to wither, not to announce the end of a season but to herald the beginning of the harvest time.

Turmeric flower
Turmeric flower | Source

When the rhizomes are removed from the soil the air is filled with a peppery fragrance; all that they touch is stained orange-yellow. The Latin word terra merita (meritorious earth) is an homage to the golden hue and from this, we receive the English name "turmeric."

Skilled hands separate out the very best of the rhizomes, those that are plump and shiny, but these will not be processed. Rather, they are set aside, the best of the best, as they will be seeds for the next year’s crop. Those that are left are boiled and then spread out to dry in the sun.

Rhizomes harvested
Rhizomes harvested | Source

Many Names

Turmeric is used throughout the world and has many names.

  • Arabic – kurkum
  • Armenian – toormerik
  • Bulgarian – kurkuma
  • Chinese – yu chin
  • Croatian - Indijski šafran
  • Hindi – haldi
  • Japanese – tamerikku
  • Russian – kurkumy
  • Swahili – manjano
  • Swedish – gurkmeja
  • Thai – kha min chan

And in Sankrit it is such an integral part of life, it has no fewer than 53 names.

Many Sanskrit Names

anestha (not offered for sacrifice)
bhadra (auspicious or lucky)
bahula (plenty)
dhirgharaja (long in appearance)
gandhaplashika (which produces good smell)
gauri (to make fair),
gharshani (to rub)
haldi (that draws attention to its bright color)
haridra (dear to hari, Lord Krishna)
harita (greenish)
hemaragi (exhibits golden color)
hemaragini (gives the golden color)
hridayavilasini (gives delight to heart)
jayanti (one that wins over diseases)
jawarantika (which cures fevers)
kanchani (exhibits golden color)
kaveri (harlot)
krimighni or kashpa (killer of worms)
kshamata (capability)
laxmi (prosperity)
mangalprada (who bestows auspiciousness)
mangalya (auspicious)
mehagni (killer of fat)
nisha (night)
nishakhya (known as night)
nishawa (clears darkness and imparts color)
patwaluka (perfumed powder)
pavitra (holy)
pinga (reddish-brown)
pinja (yellow-red powder), pita (yellow), pitika (which gives yellow color), rabhangavasa (which dissolves fat)
ranjani (which gives color)
ratrimanika (as beautiful as moonlight)
shifa (fibrous root)
shobhna (brilliant color)
shiva (gracious)
shyama (dark colored)
soubhagaya (lucky)
survana (golden color)
survanavara (which exhibits golden color)
tamasini (beautiful as night)
umavara (Parvati, wife of Lord Shiva)
vairagi (who remains free from desires)
varavarnini (which gives fair complexion)
varna datri (enhancer of body complexion)
varnini (which gives color)
vishagni (killer of poison)
yamini (night)
yoshitapriya (beloved of wife)
yoshitapriya (beloved of wife)
 
 
In Sanskrit, turmeric has no fewer than 53 names.

What Was Old Is New Again

Historically, turmeric has been a natural remedy used to alleviate respiratory ailments and aid in the healing of wounds and bruises. Thanks to the desire of many to return to natural healing substances and improve nutrition, turmeric is gaining new popularity. Let’s take a few minutes to learn how it can be used today for nutrition and health.

Is Turmeric Really a Super Spice?

There are numerous claims of the efficacy of this golden spice. What has been proven to be valid, what is yet to be proven, and have any of these claims been completely debunked?

The Claims

The active ingredient in turmeric, curcumin, has been said to prevent, relieve, or irradicate such ailments as inflammation, digestive ailments, cystic fibrosis, Alzheimer's, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, cirrhosis, and prostate and colon cancers.

Inflammation: The Arthritis Foundation states that curcumin is thought to block several enzymes that cause inflammation. However, in a 2006 clinical study, it was found to be more effective in preventing joint inflammation than in reducing inflammation that is already present. A 2010 clinical trial found that it provided long-term improvement in pain and mobility in patients with osteoarthritis.

Digestive Ailments: Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, curcumin can aid in gut inflammation. It is being explored as a treatment for irritable bowel syndrome. However, if taken in excessive amounts, turmeric can actually irritate the stomach.

Cystic Fibrosis: Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease that affects the mucus membranes and sweat glands. Patients with CF have thick, sticky mucus which blocks airflow and disrupts digestion. Pain, malnutrition (from lack of nutrient absorption), and chronic respiratory infections are almost constant companions in the lives of those with CF, lives which are always cut short. Researchers at the University of Washington and Johns Hopkins are conducting human trials on the use of curcumin as a possible CF therapy. This research is in its infancy.

Alzheimer's: Alzheimer's disease (AD) is a progressive, incurable degenerative disease which causes loss of cognitive function and is the most common cause of dementia. Various studies have shown that in India (where turmeric is used on a daily basis) the incidence of AD is lower than in other parts of the world. In a comparison of adults 70 to 79 years of age, the prevalence of AD in India is 4.4 times less than for adults in the United States.

It is thought that there are several causes for the onset of AD—inflammation is one, oxidation (damage from free radicals) is another. Exposure to heavy metals may also be a risk factor, but at the top of the list is the formation of plaque and tangles in brain cells. The Neurology Department of the UCLA Medical Center reports that curcumin has been found to reduce inflammation and oxidative damage and that it also reduces beta-amyloid plaque. However, much more research is needed in this area.

High Cholesterol: In a clinical trial in India, 10 test subjects were given 500 grams of curcumin per day for 7 days. After those 7 days, it was found that the subject's triglyceride levels were lowered an average of 33 percent and LDL (the bad cholesterol) dropped an average of 11 percent.

High Blood Pressure: There are several reasons for high blood pressure (readings greater than 130/80)—stress, atherosclerosis, and high cholesterol levels most common, so it stands to reason that if curcumin has a positive effect on triglycerides and cholesterol, it can also help to reduce high blood pressure. However, there have not been any large-scale human trials to clearly ascertain the effectiveness of curcumin on blood pressure.

Cirrhosis: Researchers in Israel have found that curcumin can help to repair damaged liver tissues. However, the number of studies on the impact of curcumin on liver diseases is still very low and research continues.

Cancer: Curcumin is an antioxidant and so it may stop the cellular damage which can trigger some cancers. But according to Dr. Timothy J. Moynihan of the Mayo Clinic, there is not yet enough evidence to support a recommendation of using curcumin for treating or preventing cancer.

Proven Health Effects

  • Reduces the number of heart attacks for post-bypass surgery patients
  • Controls knee pain from osteoarthritis, as well as ibuprofen
  • Reduces the skin irritation that often occurs after radiation treatments for breast cancer

Source: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

Cautions

High doses of turmeric can act as a blood thinner and cause stomach upset. Avoid turmeric/curcumin if you take blood thinners such as warfarin (Coumadin), are about to have surgery or have gallbladder disease.

Those with existing health conditions like diabetes and liver disease also need to take precautions when using turmeric. The properties of the spice may counteract certain prescription medications.

In addition to those with a pre-existing medical condition, pregnant women are also advised not to use turmeric in large doses, especially with supplements, as it may carry a high risk of miscarriage.

Recipes

Turmeric is common in curries and can be sprinkled on potatoes or stirred into a dip. Here are some other ways of including it in your daily diet.

Turmeric golden milk
Turmeric golden milk | Source

Bedtime Golden Turmeric Milk

Once upon a time did Mom tell you that a warm cup of milk before bedtime would help you to fall asleep? I don't know if there is scientific evidence to support the theory, or if the ritual of warm milk is associated (in our little minds) with comfort and restful sleep. Nevertheless, whether you believe in warm milk as a bedtime necessity or believe it to be an old wive's tale, here is another reason to add a warm beverage to your routine.

Kaitlin uses soy milk (I'm sure that any type of milk would do), turmeric, cinnamon, vanilla, and a sweetener to create bedtime golden turmeric milk. It's relatively low in calories so rest easy.

By the way, the same ingredients can be poured into a cocktail shaker with ice to create a golden milk latte that you can enjoy anytime during the day.

Turmeric ginger tea with cinnamon, lemon and honey
Turmeric ginger tea with cinnamon, lemon and honey | Source

Turmeric Ginger Tea With Cinnamon, Lemon and Honey

Maybe warm milk isn't your cup of tea (sorry, I couldn't resist). Emily has created a comforting hot beverage, turmeric tea. She says it's great for the times that you are feeling under the weather; maybe you have a bit of a sore throat, or a headache, or the weather is cold and blustery. A cup of this is guaranteed to brighten your day (and you don't need a French press carafe to make it).

Apple cider turmeric vinaigrette
Apple cider turmeric vinaigrette | Source

Apple Cider Turmeric Vinaigrette

Marie is a registered dietician and mom of four. She believes that the road to a healthy life is finding balance in what we eat—food that is healthy, tasty, and guilt free. Her recipe for turmeric salad dressing is bursting with flavor and color and in addition to turmeric gets a nutritional and anti-oxidant boost from apple cider vinegar and honey.

Miscellany

  • India is the largest producer (and consumer) of turmeric. Eighty percent of all turmeric grown comes from India.
  • The pigment which gives brilliant yellow color is curcumin which has been shown to be an excellent antioxidant and aids in food preservation.
  • The plant is an annual (it sprouts, grows and dies within one year).
  • Harvest and processing are both very labor-intensive. All of the work, from sowing to digging, boiling, and drying are done by hand.
  • Botanically it is related to ginger.
  • It is one of the primary seasonings in curry powder

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Linda Lum

    Comments

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      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 

        7 weeks ago from Central Florida

        Perhaps. But why only in one hand? I use both to type. Although, because I'm am accountant, my right hand gets more use (abuse) on the calculator.

        Yep. Time to retire!

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        7 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        I had to "approve" this in order to respond, but I don't approve at all. Check with your doctor. It could be carpal tunnel.

      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 

        7 weeks ago from Central Florida

        I hope not, too, Linda. Every morning for the past two weeks I've awakened with pain in my right fingers. I also sprained my right ankle around the same time. I wonder if they're related.

        I'm right handed and work on a computer all day. I think my body's telling me it's time to retire. However, the balance on my mortgage says, "not yet, Chickadee!"

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        7 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Shauna, I'm totally new in jumping on board the turmeric bandwagon (do what I say, and not what I do). I know several people who use it faithfully and so I'll ask and let you know.

        P.S. I sincerely hope you aren't developing arthritis. It's horrible.

      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 

        7 weeks ago from Central Florida

        I think I may be developing arthritis in my right hand. How much turmeric should I add to my almond milk and how often?

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        7 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Ms. Dora, thanks so much for your support. I have started adding turmeric to my daily diet. I'm glad that it has given you some relief from your pain.

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        7 weeks ago from The Caribbean

        I've got nothing but praise for turmeric as a remedy for my arthritis pain. I also put it in my almond or coconut milk. Thanks for all the additional research information you provide. Really good article.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        7 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        John, your wife is a wise woman. Show her the tea recipe. The pollen count is doing a real number on my throat today, so I'm going to have some this afternoon.

        Thanks so much for stopping by.

      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 

        7 weeks ago from Central Florida

        Interesting history, Linda. I enjoyed the bride/groom story. Kinda like he's marking his spot. Tee hee!

      • Jodah profile image

        John Hansen 

        7 weeks ago from Queensland Australia

        This was so interesting, Linda. The fact that turmeric is valued so widely around the world for its medicinal properties says something. I love the flavour and colour it adds to dishes (I adore curries.) My wife has a health shake every morning that contains turmeric, cinnamon, greens etc. thank you for sharing.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        7 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        DreamerMeg, you don't need to fry that turmeric. You can peel it if you wish (but you don't have to). A teaspoon is the best way to remove (scrape off) the skin. Grate or thinly slice and let it steep in hot water for a bit. Be careful--it stains like the dickens.

      • Blond Logic profile image

        Mary Wickison 

        7 weeks ago from Brazil

        When you mentioned in your article about the bride wearing it as a necklace, I had visions of her with a yellow stained neck. LOL

      • DreamerMeg profile image

        DreamerMeg 

        7 weeks ago from Northern Ireland

        I love turmeric. I have some roots in my fridge but someone told me that to activate the ingredients in turmeric, it needs to be fried. This is no problem for curry but I had been adding it to my favourite hot ginger and lemon drink but stopped because I didn't want to add fried turmeric to it.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        7 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Thank you Mary. Just be careful about staining.

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        7 weeks ago from Ontario, Canada

        I love the recipes you have included. I will definitely try them especially the dressing and the tea.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        7 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Yes, turmeric is indeed the culprit. Remember, long before it was used as a seasoning or medication, it was used as a dye for clothing. A bleach solution of 2 parts water and 1 part bleach should work on mugs, plates, juicers, blender jars, etc. If you don’t like using bleach, white vinegar is an option. If you get turmeric on your countertop, the remedy depends on what the surface is made of. Equal parts water and baking soda should work—dab it on (liberally), let it sit for 15 minutes, and then scrub off. (Marble, granite, and soapstone counters are porous so some stain might remain).

        I’ve been lucky enough (thusfar) to avoid getting any on my clothing so I don’t have first-hand knowledge on removing the stain from cloth. But I’ve heard that talcum powder works well if the stain is still wet. Pretreating with a paste made of detergent powder and water can help keep the stain from setting. Baking soda paste will work too.

      • Blond Logic profile image

        Mary Wickison 

        7 weeks ago from Brazil

        I'll be trying that turmeric milk drink for sure. I knew it was healthy but not sure for what.

        What is the best way to get rid of that yellow staining on plates after a curry though? I'm assuming it is the turmeric doing that.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        7 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Bill, the flavor of turmeric is quite subtle; it's slightly peppery but the emphasis is on "slightly." Give it a try. It will certainly look stunning.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        7 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Flourish, the color is so beautiful, it's difficult to NOT be poetic. I'm thinking that tea would be wonderfully soothing. Our pollen counts are off the charts right now, so maybe I'll give it a try.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        7 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

        They use this on the baking show we watch. I've never tasted it. I wonder how it would be on mac n cheese? LOL

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        7 weeks ago from USA

        With all of those health claims it’s certainly worth a try. Thank you for the useful information and poetic words.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        7 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Thank you so much Brandy. I'm glad to hear that. What a wonderful way to end the day.

      • BrandyMcNelson profile image

        Brandy McGhee Nelson 

        7 weeks ago from Arkansas

        I just made the Bedtime Golden Turmeric Milk tonight and it was delicious. Thank you for the recipe! Great Hub!

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        7 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Eric, if I made you happy, I'm happy.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        7 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Thank you very much my good friend. Should I go on here or elsewhere?

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        7 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        OK, RTalloni, you and Pamela have convinced me that I need to follow my own advice. Turmeric will make a daily appearance in my diet (and I can purchase it at the nutrition store in bulk--I'm pretty sure that's less expensive than the little shaker from the spice aisle.

      • RTalloni profile image

        RTalloni 

        7 weeks ago from the short journey

        Thanks for this info turmeric. Have been using it almost daily. Sprinkled on a boiled egg along with curry powder and salt makes a tasty mid-day snack.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        7 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Pamela, I need to add more of it to my diet as well. This getting older stuff isn't for sissies.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        7 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

        Tumeric does more for the body than I realized. I use it to reduce inflammation. This is very good new information for me. Thank you Linda.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        7 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Hi Wessman. Yes, I guess you could call curry powder turmeric with benefits. There's no harm in using turmeric wherever you want it (I love Mexican cooking too) as long as you are not in the category or pregnant, nursing, or on blood thinners. Actually, there's something about that yellow color that makes everything just look so warm and yummy. We taste first with our eyes.

      • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

        Wesman Todd Shaw 

        7 weeks ago from Kaufman, Texas

        Oh I definitely was influenced by media reports, and so, began to purchase and use it in my cooking. A shake here, a shake there.

        Most things I cook are either Mexican or Cajun influenced, me being neither type of person, but rather fond of the cuisine.

        I usually don't really taste it. I'll keep using it though, just in case the health benefits are legit. Pro Tip: Turmeric costs too much. You can get curry powder for less money, and turmeric is the primary ingredient.

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