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Last Updated Friday August 18 2017 04:55 AM IST

Amber Wonder: The power of turmeric

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Turmeric

The world has been fighting over patent rights on curcumin, its extraction, use and compounds related to it for many years now. There has been tremendous research on the compound and its health benefits. But why is the world so interested in curcumin?

Curcumin is an active compound in turmeric, an ingredient extensively used in Indian food. Nearly all Asian cultures have incorporated this wonder rhizome in their cuisine. The orange-tinged root has also been widely used in ayurveda and Chinese traditional medicine. With good reason, as curcumin is a powerful anti-inflammatory compound which helps suppress inflammation and spread of infection. That is why we have often heard elders advise us to apply turmeric paste on wounds.

A superfood

Curcumin has many medicinal properties. Studies have proven curcumin’s ability to prevent cancer, regulate blood sugar and improve insulin receptor function. It is not a surprise then that curcumin is on the superfood list. It is a nutrient powerhouse that packs in large doses of antioxidants, minerals and vitamins that reduce the risk of chronic diseases and help you fight them better. Studies around the world have found that curcumin has anti-arthritic, anti-cancer, anti-viral and anti-infl ammatory properties.

According to Bengaluru-based diet, nutrition and wellness consultant Sheela Krishnaswamy, nutritional science does not believe in ‘superfoods.’ “I think this term has been created by someone outside the nutrition and dietetics profession. In nutritional science, we believe that every food has one or more nutrients in varying quantities. There is no bad food or superfood,” she says. But Kanchan Patwardhan, clinical nutritionist and consultant, Kanchan’s House of Health & Nutrition and Arogya Hospital, Thane, begs to differ on curcumin. “It is listed in superfoods because it is proven to be the healthiest food and has been a part of Asian medicine for centuries,” she says.

“It acts on the biochemical processes in the body. Apart from having anti-cancer and anti-arthritic properties, curcumin is also said to promote fat loss and prevent cellular damage caused by the pesticides in food. Superfoods are organically grown food that have health benefits. For example: sweet lime is a superfood because it is rich in Vitamin C. Similarly, spinach, rich in iron, is considered a superfood.” Sapna Santosh Sangtani, a practising dietician in Mumbai, shares Kanchan’s views. “Curcumin is a powerhouse of antioxidants, hence it is labelled as a superfood.

Consuming it reduces the risk of disease and prolongs life. It is also used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and to improve brain function. It is used as an anti-depressant, too,” she says. She adds, however, that people are not aware of the benefits of turmeric, much less that of curcumin. Right access Despite the benefits, curcumin is not easy to consume.

Says Kanchan, “Curcumin doesn’t get absorbed well; it should be consumed in supplements that contain pepper. It can also be combined with olive oil.” Sapna adds that if one consumes fat-soluble substances, it increases curcumin absorption, as does accessing curcumin through turmeric. Sheela, too, believes that the natural way is the best way to access curcumin. “Since it is present in turmeric, the best way to consume curcumin is through everyday cooking. Supplements are available but natural is the best way,”she says.

Interestingly, curcumin has a role in traditional Indian practices as well. As Sheela observes, “In Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, people distribute fresh turmeric roots during the harvest festival of Sankranti or Pongal. It finds its way into marriages, too, as turmeric root is considered sacred. It is possible that its benefits were known for centuries. Ayurveda has used it for long. Modern science has recognised it only in the last few decades.”

Using it right

While the benefits of curcumin are many, one should not consume it in excess. “Too much of a good thing can be bad. Too much of turmeric is not recommended,” says Sheela. “In fact, some food do not need turmeric. But there are no studies in India which scientifically validate that. We rely on wisdom passed down through generations. Perhaps with time, there will be more research.”

In addition to being a superfood, turmeric can also be put to use outside the kitchen. “The use of turmeric to treat open wounds is a well-practised home remedy,” points out Kanchan. Sheela draws attention to the fact that traditionally, Indian women apply turmeric paste on their faces and arms. “We even have haldi ceremony before marriages. I’m sure there must be a scientific reason beyond the cultural reasons,” she says. So make it a practice to add turmeric to your everyday cooking. After all, countries are not fighting over this superfood for nothing.

(In arrangment with SMARTlife)

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