Turmeric has been experiencing something of a resurgence lately, thanks to an increased interest in natural health supplements and “superfoods.” You may have seen turmeric pop up in unexpected recipes and health “hacks,” like adding it to plant milk or tea, but is it actually good for you?
We’re about to find out everything there is to know about turmeric and its derivative, curcumin, so that you can decide for yourself whether you want to add it to your diet. Let’s get to learnin’!
What is turmeric?
Before we can understand how to use turmeric, we need to know what it is.
Turmeric is from the same biological family as ginger, Zingiberaceae, and it’s classified in the Curcuma genus. Like ginger, turmeric is also a rhizome derived from a tropical, perennial plant that is native to southeast Asia.
While turmeric has drawn more attention from natural health enthusiasts in recent years, it’s been used as a health supplement for approximately 4,500 years. Turmeric has become an international export, but it hasn’t strayed far from its roots.
India continues to be the main producer of turmeric, exporting 25 million US dollars’ worth of the stuff in 2017. Other producing countries include Burma, Indonesia, and China. (1)
Different types of turmeric
Did you know there are different types of turmeric? Here’s a quick overview of the most popular varieties:
There are well over 100 varieties of turmeric, but most of them are fairly similar varieties of yellow turmeric, or Curcuma longa, which vary slightly in their hue and their curcumin content.
Popular varieties of yellow turmeric include the vibrant yellow-orange Alleppey turmeric, the preferred variety in the United States, and Madras turmeric, a brighter, lighter yellow turmeric that’s more popular in British and Middle Eastern markets. (2)
The former has a curcumin content of about 7%, whereas the latter averages at about 2%.
Black turmeric, or Curcuma caesia, resembles yellow turmeric on the outside, as both have a light brown skin, but cutting open this particular variety reveals brilliant, blue-violet flesh.
Black turmeric is quite rare and isn’t likely to be found at your corner grocery store. It has many of the same properties of yellow turmeric, but has a much higher curcumin content.
White turmeric, or Curcuma zedoaria is also quite rare. It strongly resembles ginger and has a slightly mango-y aroma with pale yellow flesh.
What is curcumin?
Now, you’ve heard me use the term “curcumin content,” but what is curcumin, anyway?
Curcumin is one of the main components of turmeric, responsible for lending it both its pigmentation and many of its health benefits. Confusingly, curcumin is sometimes used interchangeably with turmeric when discussing its chemical properties and health benefits, but you aren’t likely to see curcumin in a recipe.
Are curcumin and cumin the same thing?
Curcumin sounds an awful lot like cumin, which may cause some confusion. However, these two substances are completely different.
Cumin is a spice derived from the seeds of the Cuminum cyminum plant. It is normally sold in its dried, ground form and is commonly used in Mexican, Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine for its earthy aroma and flavor.
It has a light brown color, as opposed to curcumin’s vibrant yellow-orange hue. These two might pair well together in a curry, but they most certainly are not the same thing.
Quick Facts About Turmeric and Curcumin
- There are hundreds of different names for turmeric in various languages, including at least 50 different names in Sanskrit alone. Some of these are bhadra (“lucky”), vishagni (“killer of poison”), and jayanti, or “one who wins over diseases.”
- The city of Erode in Tamil Nadu, India is the world’s largest producer of turmeric, earning it the nickname “Yellow City.”
- Turmeric has been used as a more affordable alternative to saffron since the Middle Ages and is also known as “Indian saffron.”
- White turmeric was found to be an effective, natural antivenom for King Cobra venom. (3)
- Turmeric plays a key role in Hindu weddings. The holy spice, known as haldi, is applied to the bride and groom in an ancient ceremony the day before the wedding in order to purify the couple and bless their union.
- Curcumin seems to be the next health craze for our canine friends as well, but more studies need to be done to verify that curcumin is safe and has sufficient bioavailability for Sparky.
Turmeric is low in calories, fat, and sugar, yet rich in minerals and vitamins. A modest, two-teaspoon serving of turmeric can provide you with 15% of your daily manganese and 10% of your daily iron (based on the standard 2,000 calorie diet). It also contains trace amounts of vitamin B6, potassium, vitamin C, and fiber.
Ways to Consume Turmeric
Turmeric’s layers of flavor — earthy, bitter, with a subtle touch of sweetness — make it incredibly versatile, meaning there’s no limit to the number of ways that this yellow spice can be incorporated into your favorite foods and drinks.
Here are just a few ideas to give you inspiration in the kitchen:
Turmeric’s rich yellow hue and unique flavor have made it a staple ingredient in curries, but don’t be afraid to add it to soups, rice and noodle dishes, and whatever else your heart desires. It’s also a great addition to tofu scramble; just a pinch will give it that perfect shade of yellow.
Turmeric can make a great addition to your next smoothie or blended juice, giving it a boost of color and nutrients. A heaping tablespoon (or two) of freshly grated turmeric or a generous pinch of ground turmeric will take your smoothie to the next level.
One of the most popular turmeric-centric health food crazes is golden milk, but this turmeric-infused beverage, known in India as haldi doodh, has been consumed in the country for centuries.
If you want to take a boring salad dressing and give it a beautiful color and a boost of antioxidants, all you need is a bit of ground turmeric.
Thanks to the subtlety of turmeric’s flavor, it’s just as usable in desserts as it is in savory dishes. Use this spice to add a gorgeous hue to your cupcakes, puddings, and other sweets while giving them a unique flavor.
Turmeric tea is a staple of the Okinawan diet in Japan, where the golden tea, known as ukoncha, is beloved for its many health benefits. Drinking turmeric tea is one of the simplest ways to incorporate this spice into your diet.
To make it at home, simply peel and slice turmeric, boil it for about 15 minutes, add a dash of black pepper (you’ll understand why in just a second), sweeten it to your liking, and enjoy!
You can even add some to a glass infuser teapot and let it steep before consuming, which makes a lot less mess than boiling it up on the stove.
Turmeric and Black Pepper
You may notice that recipes for golden milk, turmeric tea, and turmeric smoothies call for black pepper, but why are these two spices so commonly paired together? As it turns out, curcumin is not readily absorbed into the bloodstream, so your body will need some help in order to get the most out of curcumin — and that’s where black pepper comes in.
One of the main compounds in black pepper, known as piperine, increases the bioavailability of curcumin by 2000%. To reap the benefits of this winning combination, all you need is a pinch of pepper to go along with your next turmeric-centric concoction. (4)
Health Benefits of Turmeric and Curcumin
The reported benefits of turmeric and curcumin are seemingly endless, but it’s important to distinguish between what has been proven by science and what is merely anecdotal evidence from people on the internet.
Here are some of the best — and most well-supported — health benefits of turmeric and curcumin:
Curcumin has been proven to be a powerful anti-inflammatory compound, making it useful in managing and treating certain inflammatory diseases and conditions. Here are just a few of the inflammatory conditions that may be improved with curcumin.
Curcumin has shown great promise as an alternative treatment for arthritis. Studies indicate that its anti-inflammatory properties significantly reduce the stiffness, swelling, and pain associated with this condition. (5)
Struggling with arthritis? Check out some of the best vegan glucosamine supplements currently available.
Inflammation has been identified as one of the key causes in heart disease, so curcumin’s powerful anti-inflammatory properties can make it your heart’s best friend.
Unfortunately, much of the research done on curcumin’s role in preventing and treating heart disease has been executed via tests on rabbits, mice, and other animals, rather than in human clinical trials, so the findings are questionable.
Painful gastrointestinal conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and peptic ulcers can be relieved with a curcumin-based treatment.
Certain inflammatory eye diseases that can cause discomfort, blurry vision, and blindness may be managed with curcumin’s powerful anti-inflammatory compounds.
Studies have suggested that using curcumin to treat conditions such as uveitis, inflammation of the eye’s middle layer, can be as effective as more conventional corticosteroid treatments, without the undesirable side effects.
Curcumin and cancer
The full scope of curcumin’s effectiveness in combating inflammatory diseases is still being discovered.
It’s worth noting that, while many supporters of natural and alternative medicines are quick to label curcumin as an effective cancer treatment and preventative, more human clinical trials need to be done in order to substantiate that claim.
Another one of curcumin’s key health benefits is that it’s chock full of antioxidants, which fight free radicals in your body that may damage your cells and lead to disease. (6)
Antioxidants have also been known to slow down the aging process, so your turmeric latte isn’t so much a latte as it is a delicious sip from the Fountain of Youth.
Improves brain health
Maintaining our brain’s health and functionality is crucial to living a full and healthy life, and curcumin may play a key role in keeping this precious organ in peak condition.
An 18-month, double-blind study done by researchers at UCLA found that curcumin drastically improved subjects’ memory over time. Subjects taking curcumin showed an astounding 28 percent improvement in a series of memory tests over the course of the study. (7)
Curcumin’s amazing brain-boosting capabilities make it a candidate for treating Alzheimer’s disease. Its ability to reduce inflammation could possibly prevent or reduce the inflammation of nerve cells that this degenerative disease causes. (8)
While many more studies and clinical trials will have to be done before curcumin can be established as a legitimate Alzheimer’s treatment or preventative, what we’ve seen so far looks extremely promising.
Lowers bad cholesterol
While an entirely plant-based diet is naturally free of cholesterol, even vegans may struggle with high cholesterol levels due to genetics and other factors unrelated to diet.
Curcumin may be a viable way to naturally lower your LDL (i.e., “bad cholesterol”) when incorporated into your daily health regimen. One study found that curcumin not only decreased participants’ bad cholesterol, but increased their good cholesterol by 29 percent. (9, 10)
As with any supplement, it’s best to consult your doctor or pharmacist to make sure it won’t have any unwanted interactions with any other medications you may be taking.
How To Buy Turmeric
Turmeric can be bought fresh, ground or dried. Ground turmeric is usually available in the spice section of most grocery stores. If you’re going to be using a lot of it, look for it in bulk to get the most bang for your buck.
Fresh turmeric can be a bit trickier to track down. Most conventional grocery stores, like Kroger’s or Safeway, are unlikely to have fresh turmeric in stock, but you can usually find it in health food stores like Whole Foods alongside other “exotic” produce.
If you happen to have an Asian or Indian market (or a particularly diverse farmer’s market) in your neighborhood, you’re likely to find fresh turmeric there as well.
When choosing fresh turmeric, make sure the rhizomes are firm and the skin taut. Softness or shriveled skin indicates that your turmeric is well past its prime. If you’re looking to get the most out of your fresh turmeric, you may want to consider buying organic.
While typically more expensive, organic turmeric is also larger, plumper, and more vibrant compared to most conventionally grown turmeric.
If you want whole, dried turmeric rhizomes, your best bet is once again an Asian or Indian grocery store, but you can also find them online, usually in bulk. It probably goes without saying, but make sure your dried rhizomes are free of mold and pests.
How To Prepare Turmeric
If you’re cooking with ground turmeric, remember that less is more, especially if you’re using it more for color than flavor. A dash or two is more than enough to turn your curry or tofu scramble an eye-pleasing shade of yellow, so be sure to add it in very small increments.
Fresh turmeric can be washed, peeled, and grated or finely sliced. If you’re juicing your turmeric, you can throw it into your juicer, skin and all, provided that your turmeric is fresh, young, and has relatively thin skin.
Whether you’re using fresh or ground turmeric, one of the most important things to keep in mind when cooking with this spice is that it is very efficient at staining surfaces, cookware, and your hands.
If you don’t want your wooden spoon or white, ceramic pan to have a yellow tint for a couple of weeks, opt for darker and less absorbent materials. When peeling or grating fresh rhizomes, wear gloves to avoid yellow fingers.
Tips for Storing Turmeric
As is the case with any spice or herb, turmeric needs to be stored properly in order to preserve its flavor and aroma. How you store turmeric depends on the type you’re using.
Ground turmeric should be kept tightly sealed in its container and stored in a dark, cool place. With proper storage, it should be recipe-ready for up to four years.
Fresh turmeric should be wrapped in a dry paper towel and stored in an airtight baggie or container in the crisper drawer of your fridge. It can last for up to two weeks refrigerated or for a few months frozen.
If a piece becomes moldy, simply cut off the moldy part and try to use the remaining portion as quickly as possible, before it becomes inedible.
As I’ve already mentioned, there are virtually no limits when it comes to cooking with turmeric. It’s a welcome addition to savory curries and stir fries, refreshing smoothies and teas, and even desserts. Below are just a few turmeric recipes to get your creative juices flowing and inspire you to experiment with this ancient spice.
Easy Turmeric Chickpea Salad Sandwich
If you ever find yourself craving tuna salad, but don’t want to eat a food that’s contaminated with mercury and contributes to the destruction of our oceans, I’ve got just the recipe for you.
A simple, delicious chickpea salad sandwich, created by Karissa of karissasvegankitchen.com, can be made in just a few minutes and customized to your liking. It’s the perfect lunch option for vegans on the go.
Energy Boosting Turmeric Noodles
If you consider yourself something of a noodle-holic, you need to try these tasty turmeric noodles from The Euphoric Vegan. Creamy coconut milk, fresh ginger, garlic, and chili, and plenty of veggies and tofu make this dish light yet satisfying, and, thanks to turmeric, oh so pretty.
Turmeric and tempeh wellness bowl
For a nutritious, delicious, and filling recipe, look no further than this turmeric and tempeh wellness bowl from Cupcakes and Kale.
A warm, savory turmeric miso gravy coats every delicious bite of tamari fried tempeh and brown rice, perfectly complemented by sweet tomatoes and fresh cilantro. The beauty of such a simple recipe is that you can customize it to your heart’s desire.
Try substituting rice for quinoa, add your favorite sautéed, leafy greens, or garnish with toasted sesame seeds – the possibilities are endless.
Carrot Ginger Turmeric Smoothie
If you want a wholesome smoothie without added sugar, try this healthy recipe from Veganosity.
A touch of sweetness from pineapples and dates combine with ginger, carrots, and turmeric for a delicious, refreshing smoothie with tons of antioxidants and vitamins. It’s really easy to make in a Nutri Ninja Pro and tastes absolutely delicious!
No-Bake Turmeric Coconut Balls
Love sweets but hate baking? This simple recipe from runningonrealfood.com will satisfy your sweet tooth with maple syrup, but you don’t have to feel too guilty about indulging in these anti-inflammatory turmeric treats that are free of flour, refined sugar, and added oil.
Ginger Turmeric Lemon Cream Bars
If you want to make a turmeric-based dessert that will knock everyone’s socks off, you must try these gorgeous vegan lemon cream bars from unconventionalbaker.com.
This mouthwatering, layered dessert is light, creamy, decadent, and perfectly balanced with sweet coconut and agave, tart lemon, and spicy turmeric and ginger. Now, excuse me while I go make a batch!
Other Uses for Turmeric and Curcumin
Turmeric is a superfood for sure, but there’s so much more that it can do outside of the kitchen. Here are just a few of the many other uses for turmeric:
An all-natural dye
If you want to add a punch of color to your wardrobe, an old tablecloth, or pretty much any other fabric, you can harness the sunshine yellow of turmeric and make your fabrics prettier than ever — the natural way! (13)
Once you’ve learned how to harness turmeric’s potent pigments and balance its natural bitterness, you can turn your desserts and other culinary concoctions into nearly any shade of yellow, from a pale buttercream to a vivid goldenrod. YourDailyVegan shows you how to make a rainbow of natural food colorings with turmeric and brightly colored fruits and veggies. (14)
To take turmeric’s dyeing power one step further, you can even use it to color your hair (if you’re a fan of unconventional hair colors, of course). As with any bright hair dye, the color will show up best on bleached and toned or naturally light blonde hair.
To see turmeric hair dye in action, check out this video from cruelty-free beauty vlogger Evelina Forsell. You won’t believe how bright her hair looks until you’ve seen it for yourself!
Vegans are all about doing the least amount of harm and letting animals be…but that doesn’t mean you have to let pesky (and disease-carrying) insects bite you! Turmeric shows great promise as a natural mosquito repellent according to some studies. (15)
Roverpass.com shares six all-natural DIY recipes for repelling mosquitoes, including a recipe with turmeric essential oil. They’re definitely worth checking out if you’re looking to avoid toxic chemical ingredients, like DEET. (16)
Customize your makeup
Skin tones and shades can vary throughout the year, meaning that the liquid foundation that matches you perfectly in the winter may be too pale for you in the summer. For a natural way to make your foundation slightly darker and more warm-toned, try mixing in a tiny bit of turmeric at a time until you get the perfect shade.
If you’re all about the DIY lifestyle, you can even try making your own makeup with turmeric and other spices that you probably already have in your pantry. A nifty how-to guide from purejojoba.com shows you how to make your own foundation, blush, and bronzer using only natural, plant-based ingredients like turmeric, cinnamon, and arrowroot powder. (17)
Turmeric and Ayurveda
Turmeric’s healing capabilities may be relatively new to the Western world, but this spice has been used medicinally for thousands of years in what is known as Ayurvedic medicine, or Ayurveda. This ancient Indian healing system, which translates to “science of life,” focuses on holistic healing that balances the body and mind. (18)
Practitioners of Ayurveda believe that every person is made up of five elements — space, water, fire, earth, and air — which combine into three different life forces, known as doshas: Vata dosha, Pitta dosha, and Kapha dosha.
Turmeric is thought to balance all three doshas and has been used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat indigestion, arthritis, respiratory illnesses, and sprains, purify the blood, and detox the liver. (19)
Home Remedies Using Turmeric
Turmeric is a cheap and effective way to brighten your beauty routine and treat simple ailments.
Here are a few turmeric home remedies that are worth giving a try:
Natural dandruff treatment
Seasonal changes, dehydration, and a number of different factors can cause your scalp to become dry, irritated, and flaky. Turmeric may be a useful home remedy for dandruff due to its antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties.
To get rid of annoying dandruff, massage a mixture of ½ tsp turmeric and 4 tablespoons of coconut oil into your scalp, leave it in for 30 minutes, and then wash it out well with shampoo. (Keep in mind that this may cause staining on lighter colored hair!)
If the turmeric treatment doesn’t work for you, you can always try one of the dandruff shampoos listed on our Cruelty-Free Hair Care Guide.
DIY turmeric face mask
Turmeric also has tons of benefits for your skin. Its antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds can give your skin a healthy glow while reducing wrinkles, acne, and mild scarring.
Turmeric, almond oil, and other soothing ingredients help to fight inflammation and reduce dullness. (20)
If you have unwanted body or facial hair and you’re tired of constant shaving, waxing, or plucking, turmeric may be the surprising solution for you. This popular method of hair removal among Indian women involves repeated application of a paste made from turmeric, water, and baking soda to discourage hair growth over time.
Treat minor burns
Curcumin’s healing properties help make turmeric a natural treatment for minor burns. A study published by Dr. Madalene Heng found that applying a curcumin gel directly to a minor burn can help significantly reduce pain and reduce or prevent scarring. (21)
Recipes that combine turmeric, coconut oil, and aloe vera gel to create a soothing balm that will quickly treat the pain and inflammation caused by sunburn and other minor burns. You’ll definitely want to keep a jar of this stuff on hand!
Are There Any Downsides?
Turmeric is certainly amazing, but it’s not perfect. Like any other food or supplement, there is always the possibility of having an adverse reaction to it.
Turmeric is generally considered to be extremely safe, but WebMD recommends exercising caution with your turmeric consumption if you have gallstones, diabetes, an iron deficiency, bleeding problems, or GERD, or if you’ve recently had surgery. (22)
It may also have interactions with medications that slow blood clotting, such as ibuprofen, so avoid taking turmeric with these kinds of medications.
Are Turmeric Supplements Available?
As you know, most of turmeric’s health benefits come from its active compounds, namely curcumin. To get the most out of this superfood in the most convenient way, you may want to consider a curcumin supplement.
Unlike turmeric, which has a low concentration of curcumin, curcumin supplements pack a significant amount of the antioxidant-rich compound into a tiny capsule or tablet.
There are tons of supplements out there, and not all are created equal. A key factor to keep in mind is the presence of piperine because, as you know, curcumin is virtually unusable without it. You’ll also want to avoid gel capsules, as most of them contain gelatin (see my “Is Jello Vegan?” post for more info on gelatin).
Can You Grow Turmeric At Home?
Like ginger, turmeric can’t be grown from seeds, as the plant no longer propagates them. Instead, it needs to be grown directly from the rhizome.
Turmeric plants can be grown indoors or outdoors and can thrive in pots with proper care. The trick to growing healthy turmeric, like most other plants, is nutrient-rich soil and proper watering.
You’ll need a fresh, healthy, and preferably organic rhizome to get started. You’ll break off the individual “fingers” of the rhizome; each of these will grow into its own plant. Plant each finger about two inches deep in the soil, keep it lightly watered, and let nature do the rest.
Turmeric plants take approximately eight to ten months to mature, but your fresh, homegrown turmeric will be well worth the wait. As an added bonus, turmeric plants are stunning and will add a tropical flair to your garden, balcony, or wherever you choose to grow it.
Because the rhizomes are planted at a shallow depth, you’ll be able to feel underground to determine the size of the rhizome as it grows. When it’s large enough, you can harvest the entire rhizome at once.
For a more detailed turmeric-growing guide, check out this helpful video guide.
Turmeric and curcumin…that’s all, folks!
Turmeric has certainly earned its reputation as a superfood, and now you know why! How do you plan on incorporating it into your life? Let me know in the comments below!
About The Author:
Cristina is a writer, doggy daycare attendant, and vegan of nearly a decade. She earned a B.A. in Comparative Literature with a minor in gender studies from University of California, Irvine. As an undergrad, she served as president of the university’s animal rights club and conducted and presented research on the intersections of feminism and veganism.
When she’s not writing or taking care of dogs, she enjoys reading everything from autobiographies to YA fantasy novels, tending to her houseplants, cooking, and drawing. She lives in Southern California with her boyfriend and their dog.
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