Mysterious turmeric

As well known in India as the Taj Mahal, turmeric is one of the spices used every day in that country’s cooking.Canadians’ interest in turmeric has skyrocketed since Western researchers began touting its anticancer potential.

Related to ginger, galanga and cardamom, turmeric is a rhizome, the underground stem of a perennial plant. Its scientific name is curcuma longa.

Fresh turmeric is covered by a beige skin that hides its rich orange colour. It smells similar to ginger and tastes slightly bitter.

The yellow ground turmeric found in grocery store spice racks is made by boiling, peeling, drying and grinding the rhizome.

Properties and uses

Powerful colouring agent

Turmeric’s yellow colour has been used for thousands of years to dye fabrics and colour food as well as for body painting. When Marco Polo first encountered the plant in China in 1280, he described it as having the same properties as saffron—a slight exaggeration, since it smells and tastes quite different. However, turmeric’s colour is similar enough that it is sometimes called Indian saffron and poor man’s saffron.

In the Western food industry, turmeric is an important ingredient in American “ballpark” mustard and England’s famous Worcestershire sauce, first marketed in 1838. It is also found in candies, cookies, yellow cakes, popcorn, ice cream, cereals, sauces and many other pro-ducts. When used as a food colouring, turmeric is listed on labels as E100.

Essential component of spices mixes

Turmeric’s biggest role is undoubtedly as a flavouring in curries. In fact, it is a key ingredient in countless spice mixes used to make a multitude of stewed and braised dishes. In India and Southeast Asia, it is a component of curry powder and garam masala; in Morocco and the Maghreb, it goes into ras el hanout; in the Antilles and on Reunion Island, it is one of the many spices that make up colombo powder.

Health effects

The medicinal properties of spices have long been recognized in India. Some Ayurvedic texts recommend turmeric as a remedy for digestive problems, skin diseases and menstrual disorders. It is also said to have an anti-inflammatory effect.

It is now known that turmeric contains a pigment, curcumin, that gives the spice its colour and acts as an antioxidant. But it was when turmeric’s cancer-fighting potential began to be suspected that it joined the ranks of today’s leading health foods. For example, a search of the United States National Library of Medicine turns up more than 250 scientific articles published in 2005 regarding turmeric’s potential health benefits.

Turmeric and cancer

Cancer statistics for various parts of the world show that the incidence of non-skin cancer for men and women is three times lower in India than in the United States. The gap is even greater for colon and rectal cancer. As turmeric consumption is high in the Indian subcontinent, researchers have focused on its properties in an attempt to explain the differences.

Several in vitro and laboratory animal-based studies have demonstrated turmeric’s effectiveness at slowing the growth of—and even destroying—cancerous tumours. However, its effects on humans remain to be determined. Several clinical trials are currently under way.

Research has also shown that humans assimilate curcumin only partially, in proportions varying from 15 to 60%. Some compounds are thought to raise the absorption rate when consumed at the same meal. That is the case for the piperine in pepper and may also be true for bromelain, an enzyme found in fresh pineapple.

Turmeric and alzheimer's

It is known that protein plaques, called beta-amyloids, form in the blood vessels of the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. A California-based study published in the December 2004 issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry showed that turmeric has a protective effect against the deposit of these proteins in mice—a ray of hope for patients and their families, while awaiting the results of studies on humans.

All the same, one thing is clear: turmeric is harmless, even when consumed in large quantities (1 to 3 grams a day), as in India. And while you are waiting for confirmation of its role in preventing and treating various diseases, turmeric is sure to add colour, flavour and an exotic note to your cooking. For once we can say: throw moderation to the wind and use as much as you like!


Did you know that ground turmeric is liposoluble? It dissolves completely in fat, which is why it is usually added to the skillet when browning other ingredients (onions, garlic, etc.) in oil. This property also makes it a natural for flavoured butters and mayonnaise. Turmeric will colour your food… and your fingers! Wear gloves or use a spoon if that bothers you.Fresh turmeric will keep several weeks in the fridge. Even better, store it in the freezer until use. To keep their bright yellow colour from fading, store ground turmeric and curry powder away from light. Buy them in small quantities and transfer them to an opaque container.

Hélène Laurendeau

A nutrition and health enthusiast who loves to share: this description fits Hélène Laurendeau to a tee. She has been active for more than 25 years in the media and communications field. Nutritionist, host, columnist, author and speaker, Hélène holds a Bachelor degree in Nutrition and a Master degree in Epidemiology. She has spread her knowledge alongside Ricardo every week since 2005, as part of his daily show broadcast on ICI Radio-Canada Télé, as well as in Ricardo magazine, where she pens the Bien se nourrir (Eating Well) column.