Turmeric is trending high these days, especially in the wellness world. A boost for curries, golden milk lattes and the smoothie and juice bar, this sunny yellow spice is making headlines with its culinary, nutrition and health accolades.
Nearly 4,000 years old, turmeric is native to India and has been important as a spice, in religious ceremonies, and in traditional and herbal medicine, especially for arthritis and digestive issues. Although widely recognized for its curcumin content and the accompanying health benefits, there is much more to this ancient spice, often called Indian saffron for its less expensive but similarly pleasing color and flavor.
Similar in appearance to ginger root, turmeric (Curcuma longa) is related to ginger and also cardamom, all members of the Zingiberaceae, or ginger family. When cut, however, turmeric reveals its bright orange flesh. There are about 70 varieties of turmeric grown around the world, mostly in India. Used for color and flavor, especially in curries, turmeric is known for its anti-inflammatory properties. A one tablespoon serving of turmeric powder packs 26 percent DV (Daily Value, based on 2,000 calories/day) of antioxidant manganese and 16 percent DV of iron, essential to carrying oxygen to blood for increased energy.
A major source of the powerful plant compound curcumin, turmeric is known for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities, such as the prevention of metabolic syndrome, arthritis and anxiety and even in the management of exercise-induced muscle soreness. However, its poor bioavailability and body absorption make it vital to ingest with piperine (black pepper), which can increase its bioavailability by 2000 percent. Curcumin may also help prevent risk of cardiovascular disease by improving the function of artery endothelial (cells that line heart and blood vessels).
The finer points
The dried, powdered form of turmeric is most familiar in this country, but fresh turmeric is becoming more available in market produce sections. Treat the fresh root as you would ginger root, storing in the refrigerator. Dried turmeric is widely available in supermarkets and ethnic markets. Because there is so much variety, color is not necessarily a quality indicator. Slice fresh turmeric into soups, salads and marinades — or boil, dry and grind into homemade powder. Add dried turmeric to dairy or plant milks for the popular golden milk, mix into soups, rice, salad dressings, curries or vegetable sautes — like cauliflower — for a boost of color and flavor.