Just as kale emerged from produce-aisle obscurity and wound up in seemingly every salad, smoothie and snack on the planet, turmeric is enjoying a gourmet breakout moment all its own.
The raw plant, which looks like a ginger root, is often ground into a brilliant yellowish-orange powder to add colourful pizzaz to South Asian dishes, such as vegetable curries or chicken tikka masala.
But health-conscious (and trend-obsessed) diners are increasingly adding the spice to their lattes, cold-pressed juices and other edibles to tap into turmeric’s purported anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer benefits.
A recent experiment by the BBC’s Trust Me, I’m A Doctor TV series — conducted with Britain’s leading health researchers — suggests some of the health claims around turmeric may hold some weight.
Turmeric has been used in non-Western medicine for thousands of years to improve blood circulation and digestion. But the scientific evidence supporting how turmeric (and its colour-giving compound curcumin) actually boost human health is still relatively new.
Studies pointing to turmeric’s cancer-fighting properties have mainly been conducted with rodents, using unrealistically high doses of the spice.
Researchers found that ‘in rats exposed to cancer-causing substances, those that were treated with turmeric were protected from colon, stomach, and skin cancers,’ according to a summary of turmeric’s potential health benefits by Memorial Sloan Kettering, one of the top US cancer centres.
‘Turmeric also stops the replication of tumour cells when applied directly to them in the laboratory, but it is unknown if this effect occurs in the human body,’ the summary said.
Few experiments have been done on humans with real-world doses, according to the BBC report.
Working with the top researchers, the hosts of the BBC programme recruited 100 volunteers for their turmeric test, then divided participants into three groups.
One group was asked to consume a teaspoon of turmeric every day for six weeks, ideally mixed within their food, such as warm milk or yogurt. The second group was asked to swallow a supplement containing a teaspoon of turmeric. A third group took a placebo pill.
In previous studies unrelated to the turmeric research, Dr. Widschwendter and his team compared tissue samples taken from women with and without breast cancer. They found that a change happens to the DNA of a person’s cells well before the cells turn cancerous. The process, called DNA methylation, acts like a ‘dimmer switch’ that turns the activity of a gene up or down, the BBC reported.
Trust Me, I’m A Doctor asked Dr. Widschwendter to test the DNA methylation patterns of the 100 volunteers’ blood cells at the start and end of the turmeric experiment, to see if it would reveal any change in their risk of cancer, allergies and other diseases.
The doctor reported that, perhaps unsurprisingly, no changes occurred in the group that took the placebo pill. The group that took the turmeric supplement pill also didn’t show any difference.
‘But the group who mixed turmeric powder into their food — there we saw quite substantial changes,’ Dr. Widschwendter told the BBC.
‘We found one particular gene which showed the biggest difference,’ the doctor said, adding that the gene is thought to be involved in a handful of diseases, such as depression, asthma, eczema and cancer.
‘This is a really striking finding,’ Dr. Widschwendter said.
The experiment by Trust Me, I’m A Doctor is far from conclusive, and more research will be needed to confirm their findings.
Still, the programme suggests that steeping turmeric root for some tea or dashing the bright powder on your eggs won’t be totally for naught.
Patients undergoing chemotherapy, however, should ask their doctor before taking turmeric. Recent lab findings suggest it could inhibit the anti-tumour action of chemotherapy drugs, according to Memorial Sloan Kettering.