(Written by Olivia Kelava, student at CSNN Vancouver)
Turmeric is kind of like the movie star who appears to have emerged from nowhere. You think she just got plucked from oblivion and dumped into a starring role, but really she’s been grafting all her life, playing an extra in the background and accepting supporting roles before finally catching her big break. Turmeric’s big break has been the wellness revolution spurred on by social media, but this is by no means the beginning of the story.
It was used as a spice in cooking, it was worn during purification ceremonies, it was used as a beauty aid and as a dye for clothing, and its anti-inflammatory effects were utilized for medicinal purposes. While turmeric has always had a special place in Ayurvedic medicine, it was not appreciated by herbalists in the western world until the late 20th century. And even still, most people were not yet incorporating turmeric into their daily, at-home cooking or self care rituals. Despite its extensive resume, we didn’t give turmeric the spotlight until it’s yellow-gold pigment earned it the right to claim centre stage on Instagram.
Turmeric is a root that is part of the ginger family. When raw, it looks like a smaller, oranger knob of ginger. Most often, though, it is bought in spice jars, dried and ground, and more yellow-gold than when fresh. It lends its colour to the typical Indian curry. Turmeric has a taste that you wouldn’t necessarily crave on its own – slightly pungent, earthy, and bitter – but that adds delicious depth, not to mention colour and aroma, to spice blends in all sorts of recipes.
In the past few years, more and more research has been done on the benefits of this versatile spice, and plenty of benefits have been found. Note that some of the studies mentioned hereafter were actually done on curcumin, not on turmeric. Curcumin is a compound (one of many curcuminoids) found in turmeric, and currently considered to be the main active ingredient in the root, although there are many other compounds in turmeric that simply have not been investigated yet.
Currently, there is some grey area around whether it is “better” to supplement with a curcumin extract or to use the whole root (whether fresh or dried). While they have many benefits in common, turmeric may have some benefits that curcumin does not (due simply to the fact that it is a whole food with a variety of compounds that interact and enhance each other), and curcumin may be more beneficial than turmeric in specific circumstances (due to the fact that you would be mega-dosing an isolated, concentrated compound). There’s really no wrong answer – choose what works for you and your health goals/concerns.
Most of the benefits of turmeric come back to the fact that turmeric is anti-inflammatory. Scientists are currently starting to realize what alternative medicine has intuitively thought for a long time: inflammation contributes to disease. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that most of us are suffering from some manifestation of chronic inflammation, and so any food or natural supplement that can have anti-inflammatory effects on the body should be celebrated. Especially since turmeric has been shown to actually match the effectiveness of some anti-inflammatory pharmaceutical drugs, but without the side effects!
In addition to being anti-inflammatory, turmeric also has antioxidant properties. Antioxidants are crucial to the proper functioning of your body, especially your immunity, because they protect you from free radicals. Free radicals are highly reactive molecules that are looking for an electron to pair with; they will take a molecule that you need, causing oxidative damage which may lead to disease and signs of aging, unless an antioxidant claims that spot instead. As a rule of thumb, all highly-pigmented natural foods, like brightly coloured fruits and vegetables (especially berries) are high in antioxidants. Turmeric is no exception; that striking orange colour is a sign of strong antioxidant properties.
So far, turmeric has been shown to have benefits for Alzheimer’s, depression, diabetes,  heart disease, obesity, and osteoarthritis, as well as supporting liver function, to name just a few of its many accomplishments.
Considering that it has a myriad of benefits and no side effects, there’s no reason not to incorporate turmeric into your regular routine. But how do you do that?
Make sure that whenever you’re using turmeric, you’re finding a way to incorporate at least a pinch of back pepper. Curcumin is not absorbed very well into the bloodstream, but the piperine naturally occurring in black pepper increases the absorption of turmeric by 2,000%.
For all the ideas listed below, you can use fresh grated turmeric, dried ground turmeric, or even food grade turmeric essential oil! If you can get turmeric into your diet once a day, you’ll be doing your body a lot of good.
If you love curry, then you’re in luck – you’re already getting your turmeric into your dinner! However, if you’re buying a pre-made curry blend, then there’s really no way to guarantee the quality of the spices you’re consuming. So try making your own! Here’s a great recipe. You can use this blend for your typical curry, or add it to soups and stews.
One of the easiest ways to use turmeric in your cooking is to add it to your roasted vegetables. Chop up some sweet potatoes, russet potatoes, carrots, and whatever else you love, and sprinkle some turmeric on with salt and pepper. Yum! These make a great addition to bowls, salads, hashes, and scrambles, and are also great on their own as a bedtime snack!
Steep some turmeric in hot water with some lemon, ginger, and honey, and you’ve got not only a delicious tea but also an antidote to any cold bug you might feel coming your way.
A big bowl of oatmeal is one of the best ways to start your day. It’s a great vessel for all the nutrients you need to get you going. Try adding some flaxseed meal, hemp hearts, frozen berries, cinnamon, maple syrup, nut milk, and, of course, turmeric, for an anti-inflammatory bowl packed with antioxidants and omega 3s.
A smoothie is another great vessel for getting in those supplements and superfoods that otherwise might be a drag. I always add collagen and vitamin D to my smoothies, and if I know I won’t be getting turmeric at any other point in the day, I drop a knob of that in there, too. To up the ante, add some black pepper, cayenne, ginger, and lemon juice to your favourite smoothie base. That will wake you up.
Written by Olivia Kelava, student at CSNN Vancouver
Olivia Kelava is a freelance writer and fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. She is currently working towards her diploma in holistic nutrition at CSNN Vancouver.