The question: I've heard turmeric is a healthy spice to add to foods. How much should I take each day? Should I take a supplement instead?
The answer: Turmeric root, which gives Indian curry and ballpark mustard their signature yellow colour, has been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine to treat a variety of conditions. Only recently, though, has the spice received the attention of scientists for its potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Research suggests extracts of turmeric can relieve symptoms of indigestion, prevent irritable bowel syndrome and alleviate knee pain caused by osteoarthritis. Turmeric's health benefits are attributed to an active ingredient called curcumin. The majority of studies have been focused on curcuma rather than turmeric.
Experiments in test tubes have demonstrated the ability of curcumin to kill colon-cancer cells. In people, preliminary evidence suggests taking curcumin may reduce symptoms of inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis) and rheumatoid arthritis. It's also been shown to prevent the development of Type-2 diabetes in people with prediabetes.
Earlier this month, a study published in Clinical Nutrition found that taking curcumin supplements reduced inflammation in people with metabolic syndrome. A person is thought to have metabolic syndrome if he or she has a large waist circumference plus two or more of the following symptoms: high blood triglycerides, high blood pressure, elevated fasting blood glucose and low HDL (good) cholesterol. The cluster of risk factors is thought to double the risk of heart attack and increase the likelihood of developing Type-2 diabetes fivefold.
You can buy turmeric as a fresh root in natural food stores (it looks like ginger root), in capsules containing powder and in tincture form. Curcumin is sold as a supplement in capsules. Supplements are best taken with food to increase the absorption of curcumin.
Despite the fact that turmeric has years of traditional use and some preliminary evidence of health benefits, it's still an unproven treatment. As such, there is no standard dose of a turmeric or curcumin supplement to take. Speak to your health-care provider to determine which supplement – and how much – is right for you.
That said, fresh turmeric root or ground turmeric spice is a healthy addition to your diet. Add grated turmeric root or a pinch of turmeric powder to smoothies, rice and quinoa (when cooking), curries, soups, stir-fries, egg dishes and dips.
When used as a spice in foods, turmeric is considered safe. However, turmeric and curcumin supplements may not be safe for everyone. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid taking them. People with gallstones, individuals with bleeding disorders and those taking medication for diabetes should consult their doctor before taking turmeric or curcumin.