Why Turmeric Is Ingredient of the Year

With growing proof of its health benefits, the yellow spice is being added to lattes, juices and face masks, says Claire Coleman

The turmeric latte from Greenleaf Organics. Picture / @greenleaforganics.

Still starting the day with a green juice? You might think it’s the height of healthsome fashion, but the drink to be sipping is a turmeric latte. The vivid golden concoction, made from cold-pressed turmeric juice and nut milk, has a new following as a healthy alternative to coffee. Several local cafes are jumping on the bandwagon with their take on the turmeric latte, while social media is awash with recipes and images of perfect, aerated yellow lattes, often decorated with sprinkles of cinnamon.

Turmeric is emerging as the hottest superfood on the block — Google’s recent Food Trends report named the spice as the “breakout star” ingredient of the year, with internet searches rising 56 per cent this year.

Health-conscious celebrities and bloggers are not only eating and drinking it — Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop website has a turmeric latte recipe, London-based blogger Deliciously Ella makes a turmeric hummus, and Nigella adds it to cauliflower soup — but incorporating it into their beauty regimens. Actor Thandie Newton adds turmeric to her tinted moisturiser, while Star Wars actress Daisy Ridley shared a video of her face plastered in a turmeric mask.

Most of us know turmeric as an ingredient for curries, but it has been revered in Asia for its medicinal properties for more than 3000 years; turmeric and milk is a popular home remedy there for various ailments.

“In Ayurvedic medicine, it’s mixed with honey to form a thick paste taken orally for sore throats and colds, or applied to skin to treat infections and inflammation,” says pharmacist Shabir Daya. “It’s used in powder form in Asia for the relief of stomach complaints and for kidney and bladder infections, and it’s also been used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine, for the relief of arthritis.”

Turmeric is a perennial herbaceous plant, part of the same family as ginger, and native to southern Asia. While in some regions, the leaves are used as the base of certain dishes, or to wrap food while it is cooking, the root is most commonly used — either whole to make curry, soup and pickles, or dried and powdered. Its health benefits have been borne out in research.

“What has emerged from the studies is that turmeric contains a group of polyphenol plant pigments called curcumin, and it is this compound that is responsible for some of its remarkable properties,” says Daya.

Curcumin is a potent anti-inflammatory agent, suggesting turmeric could help protect against illnesses and diseases associated with excessive inflammation, from asthma and allergies to heart disease and cognitive decline. A three-month study of arthritis sufferers taking curcumin-based supplements reported a 58 per cent decrease in reported pain and stiffness as well as improvement in joint flexibility.

Curcumin is also being studied for its potential effects on Alzheimer’s disease, as the extract breaks down the amyloid-beta plaques that form on the brains of people with dementia. Turmeric is not easily absorbed and, as yet, there is no hard evidence that the spice could treat or prevent dementia, but such findings may be helpful in the development of future treatments.

Turmeric is also thought to work as an antiseptic — research suggests that it inhibits pathogenic bacteria, viruses and fungi; in Asia, it has been used for centuries to treat wounds and infections.

It also seems to be a good immune booster, says Daya. “Turmeric displays very powerful antioxidant properties, some five to eight times more potent than vitamins C and E.”

There are studies that suggest turmeric could help with depression, and even have anti-cancer effects — the best results are seen in breast, bowel, stomach and skin cancer cells, though experts say more clinical trials in humans are needed.

Sir Michael Caine has said that he’s been taking turmeric tablets for more than 30 years, crediting them with warding off the effects of ageing. Is it really worth applying turmeric to your skin? “There is growing evidence that turmeric might have anti-inflammatory benefits,” says Harley St cosmetic dermatologist, Dr Sam Bunting. “However, the skin is a highly effective barrier so it will need to be formulated in a way that gets it over this hurdle to be helpful. That’s a job for the laboratory chemist — applying it straight from the cupboard is unlikely to do the trick.”

While topical turmeric hasn’t quite caught on, ingesting it certainly has. From turmeric shots to lattes, not to mention curries, pickles, juices, smoothies and more, there are multiple ways to get your turmeric top-up. As turmeric powder only contains about five per cent curcumin, some believe that you’re better off taking a curcumin supplement — which contains around 95 per cent curcumin — rather than a turmeric supplement.

But the type of supplement is also important, says Daya. “Turmeric is poorly absorbed by the body as it is quickly degraded by the stomach acids and very little gets into the bloodstream. It’s not water soluble but does dissolve in fats.”

As a result, to ensure the greatest availability to the body, he suggests looking for a supplement that either wraps the turmeric in an enteric coating, which stops the stomach acids breaking it down, or one that contains oil.Of course, a more palatable option would be to use all this as an excuse to order a spicy turmeric-rich, Friday-night curry.

— The Daily Telegraph

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