Linked to a long list of health benefits, turmeric has gained a following lately. What can turmeric do and how can you use it?

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On Nutrition

Turmeric has been used for centuries in both cooking and medicine, but its status as a cure for what ails you has been trending lately. From turmeric tea and golden milk to curries and capsules, this vividly hued spice is everywhere. Is it much ado about nothing, or does turmeric deserve a place in your pharmaceutical pantry?

Turmeric is a pungent, slightly bitter golden spice that comes from the rhizome of the plant Curcuma longa. If you see fresh turmeric in the produce section, you’ll notice its resemblance to fresh ginger. It’s been used in Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine since ancient times, and has served as a flavoring and coloring agent for just as long. Not only is it a common ingredient in curry dishes, yellow cheeses and mustard, it’s been linked to a long list of health benefits, from wound healing to cancer prevention.

There have been thousands of research studies on turmeric, almost all of them focusing on curcumin, which makes up roughly 2 to 5 percent of turmeric. The results have been puzzling, because it turns out that curcumin has very low bioavailability — in other words, we barely absorb it, even at high doses. How could it be that a substance that appears to have health benefits pretty much just passes through the body? The gut microbiota may be the key.

What we don’t absorb into our bloodstream still goes through our intestines, and some recent research suggests that curcumin alters the gut microbiota population, which could explain its effects on health. It could also explain why the best evidence supports using turmeric to soothe an upset stomach and to help reduce chronic inflammation. That’s no small thing, since chronic inflammation can contribute to a host of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, arthritis and dementia.

Interestingly, scientists have also discovered that many other compounds in turmeric may have health benefits in their own right. Studies looking at curcumin-free turmeric (turmeric that has had the curcumin removed) have found it has anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties. A study early this year essentially called the past few decades of curcumin research a wasted effort, suggesting that we take a more holistic approach by looking at turmeric as a whole food — in other words, ditching the capsules and dishing up some curry.

Fresh turmeric root will last in a fridge for a few weeks. To use, peel the root before you grate or chop it. Both fresh and dried ground turmeric pair well with rice, lentil and vegetable dishes, as well as soups, stews, scrambled eggs and even smoothies. Including black pepper in the dish will help you absorb more of the turmeric compounds. I once had a patient who, for an afternoon snack, would stir some ground turmeric into hummus, spread it on some whole grain crackers, and grind some fresh pepper on top. Yum!

If you are interested in making turmeric milk (aka golden milk), simply combine 1 cup milk, ¼ inch fresh turmeric root (or ½ teaspoon ground), ¼ inch fresh ginger root (or ¼ teaspoon ground), 1 piece cinnamon stick (or ¼ teaspoon ground), 2 cracked cardamom pods and 2 whole black peppercorns in a medium saucepan and heat to a simmer. Continue to simmer for about 5-6 minutes, then strain and add honey to taste. If you used whole spices, you can strain the tea through a fine mesh strainer. If you used ground spices, line the strainer with cheesecloth.