I am pretty sure everyone has heard of turmeric, and most of us have it in our spice cabinet, but I have often read that it has more benefits than simply adding flavor to curries or adding color to the mustard we buy at the supermarket. I have also read that people like myself, who suffer from high blood sugar level, could possibly benefit from turmeric. So, I thought it was worth my time to take a closer look and see if turmeric is something I should start adding to my diet. This is out of my area of expertise—I cook, not cure—but I thought I would share what I have found.

Turmeric is a perennial with large, lily-like leaves and yellow flowers. It is a member of the ginger family and, like ginger, it comes from the underground starchy root rhizome of the plant. The starch dissolves during prolonged simmering to provide thickening for sauces. Fresh turmeric, like ginger, has a brownish skin, but the flesh is a bright orange. Turmeric has been cultivated for over 2,000 years in India, China and the Middle East, but it now grown in all the tropical regions of the world. I did not realize that the colorful spice is known for its brilliant golden, yellow color, which has been used to make dye for both clothing and food. Kraft recently announced that it would start using natural products instead of chemical dyes in their macaroni and cheese—turmeric being one of them in their new formula. India and China both use turmeric as a dye for their textiles. It is thought to be one of the ancient Persian yellow spices that were associated with sun worship. You typically will not find it fresh like you would ginger. Turmeric is most often sold dried and ground. It adds a warm, mild aroma and distinctive yellow color to foods. It is essential to curry powders and it is also used to flavor many Indian vegetarian dishes. It can also be used as a substitute for saffron, the taste will be more mild and musky, but the color will be a brilliant golden yellow. It is often referred to as the “poor man’s saffron.”

Turmeric is also used to make one of my favorite beverages: tea. I have read that on the island Okinawa, which has the world’s longest average life spans in the world, they drink huge quantities of turmeric tea. Some brew it fresh like ginger tea (which I highly recommend and is great for a sore throat), but others simply buy cans of powdered instant versions. To make it at home, bring 4 cups of water to a boil, add one teaspoon of ground turmeric and reduce to a simmer for 10 minutes. Strain the tea through a fine sieve into a cup and add honey and/or lemon to taste. You can also try adding a teaspoon of ginger along with the turmeric.

The ground is more convenient, but it would be worthwhile to experiment with freshly grated turmeric for a more vibrant flavor. Next time you find yourself in a natural store or Asian market keep your eyes peeled for it (no pun intended) and you may get lucky and find the root. Turmeric has an important place in an anti-inflammatory diet. It contains more than two-dozen anti-inflammatory compounds, including six different natural COX-2-inhibitors. The spice contains curcumin, a compound that has been found in studies to ease pain as well as ibuprofen did in people with knee osteoarthritis. Curcumin is the major pigment in turmeric, which turns out to be an excellent antioxidant. This may explain why turmeric is considered to have preservative properties. Curcumin is sensitive to pH. In acid conditions it’s yellow, while in an alkaline condition it turns orange red.

I found some valuable information from an article written in the Huffington Post: “Curcumin, is behind a whole host of the health benefits attributed to the spice. A 2012 study examined one perk of curcumin in particular: the ability of the extract to prevent heart attacks among bypass patients. The researchers pointed out, the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin may contribute to as much as a 65 percent lower chance of heart attack among bypass patients.”

What I found the most interesting, due to my high blood sugar, was that for “people with prediabetes, curcumin capsules were found to delay the onset of Type 2 diabetes in a 2012 study. Over a nine month-long study, participants were given either curcumin supplements or placebo capsules. Just over 16 percent of people taking the placebo pill were diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes by the end of the study, while no one taking curcumin was. Again, researchers chalk these results up to the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant powers of the compound.”

One would think that turmeric is a miracle drug, but the bad news is, according to the article, that, “the FDA doesn’t regulate dietary supplements the same way it regulates food or conventional medication, so not every supplement is created equal. Also, certain supplements, including those made from turmeric, can interact with other medications. Turmeric may slow blood clotting, for example, so people taking drugs with the same effect, like anticoagulants, should be cautious about taking turmeric supplements, according to the National Institutes of Health. And, of course, it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before starting any kind of supplements.”

So, to sum it up, I personally think I will give turmeric a try starting with the tea. Either way, knowing what I know now I have a greater appreciation for the simple spice called turmeric.

By Chef K. Marie Paulk