Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Is turmeric a superfood?

While doing some editing in a central London cafe yesterday, I noticed that there were more customers washing down their brunch with a turmeric latte than a flat white. This may say more about my choice in London cafes but it does also signify that the latest superfood trend, turmeric, is becoming as much a staple on the menus of cafes as it is the lifestyles of the celebrities and 'healthy eating' bloggers who endorse the golden spice as their secret to health, happiness and glowing skin. 

But, does the super spice have all of the healing properties bestowed upon it? 

Turmeric (haldi)  is a plant from the ginger family and looks rather similar to ginger when in its original form though we tend to see the ground, powder version of it in most stores. It is mainly south Asian in its origin and has been around for 4,000 years, with its primary use actually being medicinal rather than culinary. It is, however, used regularly in modern day Asian cuisine for its colour as well as its flavour and is the repeat offender when it comes to glowing orange-yellow stains on my clothes. It's warming, smokey and slightly bitter flavour makes it a prime target for being transformed into a hot drink. 

Its reported anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant properties supposedly contribute to treating  arthritis,  indigestion, Alzheimer's, diabetes, cancer, acne and depression. The active ingredient within turmeric that such health benefits are attributed to is curcumin. However, don't treat your occasional latte or curry as the silver - or golden - bullet. The amount of concentrated curcumin in the turmeric you buy in stores will probably be nowhere near enough to reap the potential health benefits. If you really want to try it out as a medicinal item, you are better off buying supplements, after seeking medical advice, of course. 

Not only that, my unscientific review of the scientific literature online seems to conculde that there is no robust clinical evidence to prove that turmeric has signiciant health benefits. That's not to say that it doesn't - there is just not enough direct evidence, yet. For example, some reports showed that curcumin could kill cancer cells, but this has yet to translate into real life treatment and there are some questions as to whether it can safely determine cancer cells from healthy ones and not kill both. The Alzheimers Society has ear-marked turmeric as having potential in the development of future treatments. One could argue that it's been used as a medicinal item for thousands of years for a reason, and there is certainly little evidence that it comes with any significant side affects, and, it does seem to show potential in some trials. But, in small, limited studies, mainly in animals rather than longer, controlled clinical trials in humans. 

When it comes to skin benefits, while I don't buy into it as a miracle cure for conditions such as acne, rosacea or eczema, I should admit that I am a regular user of homemade, turmeric rich face masks and many a south Asian, including myself are more likely to smear turmeric on a family member's skin that sip it in a latte. See how happy I look smearing it on my brother's face the night before his wedding! 

In many Punjabi Sikh and Hindu weddings, it is tradition, a day or two prior to the wedding to have a 'haldi ceremony' for the bride and groom where the family will rub a mixture of turmeric, rose water and sandalwood on the bride and groom. This is an act to purify the body and soul before the wedding, to enrich the skin and promote a healthy glow for the big day and, well, it's pretty fun attacking a family member with a gooey paste. There was also plenty of turmeric in the number of curries we ate over that weekend. 

So, while this multi-purpose spice may be flavour of the month among the celebrities, bloggers and hipster cafes, I wouldn't call off going to the doctor for your ailments in favour of a golden latte just yet. In the meantime, I'll continue to consume it and smear it on my face well beyond it being replaced with the next food hype. 

The perfect turmeric latte: read more about how to make it, the perfect milk to use and whether it's all worth it in Saba Imtiaz's piece in the Guardian.

My recipe for masala lamb cutlets and turmeric cauliflower puree can be found here and there is plenty of turmeric in this recipe for a basic daal. 

Finally,  my 'recipe' for a turmeric face mask that'll leave you with a golden hue even if it won't shift that spot:

- 2 tablespoons of gram flour (or plain flour)
- 1 heaped teaspoon of ground turmeric 
- 1 tablespoon of yoghurt
- 1 teaspoon of honey 

Mix all the ingredients together until you have a thick paste - add more flour if it's runny and more yoghurt if it's too thick. Leave on the face for ten minutes and rinse off. If you're quite pale, be warned, your face may have more of a yellow, emoji style hue than a golden one so you may need to do a few rinses and use a thin layer. Not one to try out the day of a big event, just in case. 

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