Gloriously golden, aromatic and sensual, turmeric is is famed over the world for its incredible health properties. So, if you’ve decided to add this fabulous spice into your regular health routine, what’s the best way to take turmeric? We look at the options available and weigh up the pros and cons.April 28, 2022 5:24 pm June 03, 2021 4:07 pm
What is turmeric?
If you are a regular cook or enjoy Indian food, you probably have a little jar of turmeric sitting in your spice cupboard. Instantly recognisable thanks to its bright, golden-yellow color, turmeric has an aromatic taste and fragrance.
In cooking, turmeric is used in curries and spiced dishes to add flavor and color. It’s also often used as a dye (and anyone who has ever spilt a sauce containing turmeric will know just how effective a dye it is!).
The powdered spice we often use in cooking is made from the root (or, more accurately, the rhizome) of the turmeric plant. Turmeric is a member of the same family as ginger, which explains why they look rather similar.
It’s actually a rather lovely flowering plant, although the flowers inevitably get less attention than the famous roots.
Although it has been used for generations in Ayurvedic medicine, the Western world has only recently become interested in turmeric as a health food.
Turmeric is an adaptogen, which means it has a modulatory effect on the body. For instance, if you are feeling stressed, it can help relax you, but if you’re feeling sluggish it can help energize you.
Alongside its adaptogenic properties, the main reason why turmeric has attracted attention as a health food is down to one bioactive compound, called curcumin. It’s a polyphenol, and scientists have spent a lot of time studying its potential health effects.
Curcumin is thought to be an antioxidant. More impressively, it shares a characteristic with one of the moist powerful antioxidants around: vitamin E. Both vitamin E and curcumin are ‘chain-breaking antioxidants’.(1)
This means that they can disrupt the chain reaction which causes free radical damage to spread. (You can find more detailed information on the antioxidant chain reaction in our article all about antioxidants.)
But perhaps the most well-known benefit of curcumin is its anti-inflammatory properties.
We’re going to hit you with some complicated-sounding chemical names now, but bear with us as it’ll help explain how curcumin works!
In many diseases, inflammation is regulated by a substance called Tumor Necrosis Factor α (TNF-α). This in turn is controlled by a transcription factor, NF-κB (a transcription factor is like a switch which turns certain genes on and off).
If you can stop NF-κB’s from switching on inflammation-causing TNF-α, then you are able to dampen down the body’s inflammatory response. And this is precisely what curcumin does.(1)
Scientists have noted that inflammation is present in many diseases, from obesity to depression, but they do not yet fully understand the role inflammation plays.
To find out more, you can also check out our article on turmeric’s impressive health benefits.
How to take turmeric
Turmeric has a major advantage over many other adaptogens in that it has a naturally delicious flavor, Hence why it is used in so many popular dishes!
This means that there’s no need to hide or mask the flavor with other ingredients. In fact, turmeric’s flavor is one to celebrate.
Before we get into the various options available, there’s one important point we should mention.
Turmeric and black pepper
While these two spices make a fabulous flavor combination, there’s another important reason to pair turmeric and black pepper together.
Curcumin, despite having so many potentially positive effects on our bodies, is actually not very easy for us to absorb. In official terms, it has ‘low bioavailability’.
However, pairing turmeric with black pepper can increase curcumin’s bioavailability.
This is down to a compound called piperine which is naturally present in black pepper.
One study looked at the effects piperine on curcumin absorption in both humans and rats. The researchers found that piperine increased curcumin’s bioavailability by 2000%, with no adverse effects.(2)
The lesson? If you want to get the most from your turmeric, always pair it with a dash of black pepper.
Consuming turmeric as a tea or infusion is one of the oldest ways of taking it, and one of our favorites.
There is an important distinction to make between homemade turmeric tea and tea bags or tea blends which contain turmeric.
If you would like to make turmeric tea at home, you can do this easily by adding a couple of heaped teaspoons of turmeric powder to hot water and leaving to steep for 5-6 minutes. Turmeric doesn’t dissolve but will stay suspended in the water. If it sinks to the bottom, just give it a quick stir.
It’s also an opportunity to add in any other flavorings you like; we love to add ginger, lemon or orange to our brew. You could also add a small amount of honey, if you prefer your tea a bit sweeter. (And of course, don’t forget the black pepper!).
Pre-made turmeric teas
If you are considering a pre-made tea blend with turmeric, we recommend you take a careful look at the label to see how much turmeric is actually in the product.
While some high-quality turmeric tea bags contain only pure turmeric (and are therefore a convenient way to make your tea), others contain very little turmeric. Here, it’s used predominantly as a flavoring.
A brief look at a few tea makers shows that you can expect around 31 – 50% of your tea to actually be turmeric. This is significantly less than if you make it yourself with turmeric powder.
This is, of course, absolutely fine if you’re only looking for the flavor. However, if you are interested in curcumin’s health benefits, we’d recommend making your own tea.
When it comes to the question of using tea bags or straining out the turmeric powder, it’s really a matter of preference. If you prefer a smooth tea, by all means strain the powder out.
However, if the texture doesn’t bother you, it’s our opinion that you’re more likely to absorb turmeric’s goodness if you drink the whole lot.
"Stir it into your smoothies, add it to curries, sprinkle it into rice to give it a vibrant hue, make a detoxing broth with it: with turmeric, the world is your oyster."
There are a vast number of turmeric supplement capsules on the market nowadays. Many people are attracted to them because they’re easy and convenient: you can just pop a capsule in the morning and you’re done.
However, there are a few things to bear in mind if you want to go down the capsule route. The key thing is to check, check, check the label!
Firstly, you’ll need to make sure that you know exactly what’s inside the capsule. Some supplements contain only turmeric, but as we know, without black pepper it’s very difficult for your body to absorb. Others contain additional herbs, which you may or may not want.
Some are marketed as ‘high strength’, which refers simply to the addition of black pepper. And some contain substances which are needed as binders or fillers, which have no nutritional benefit whatsoever.
This is not to say that there aren’t good turmeric supplements out there; merely that a bit of research is required to find a high-quality option. Ideally you should look for one with organic turmeric and organic black pepper, with nothing else.
It’s also worth noting that this isn’t the traditional Ayurvedic method of taking turmeric, which advises taking the powder with warm water or milk. This acts as a ‘carrier’, and is believed to improve digestion.
Finally, you will need to consider what the capsule itself is made of. While many capsules nowadays are suitable for vegans and vegetarians, some do still use animal gelatine. Once again, check that label!
Under the umbrella of turmeric capsules, you may also find some supplements which simply provide curcumin.
There is some debate over whether you’re better off with an extract or with a whole food. (‘Whole food’ refers to either the plant itself or a foodstuff made using the entire food, for example if you cook it or grind it into a powder.)
There doesn’t seem to be any definitive answer, scientifically speaking, but here at Erbology we fall firmly in favor of whole foods.
There are a few reasons for this.
Supplements or whole foods?
Firstly, much of the traditional use of turmeric as a health-boosting food comes from Ayurveda. This ancient practice promotes the use of whole foods, and where turmeric is used in Ayurveda, it is consumed as a whole food.
Secondly, at Erbology we generally advocate for whole foods rather than extracts and supplements in general. This is because extracts often provide only one nutrient (as in the case of curcumin) while whole foods provide myriad other micronutrients as well.
There’s much we don’t understand about the role of these additional nutrients and the role they play in our health. However, we do know that they often interact with each other. In nature, nutrients never appear in isolation, so why should we consume them that way?
Finally, supplements can sometimes provide ‘too much of a good thing’. As they often provide nutrients at very high doses, it is possible to consume so much that your body reacts negatively and you experience side effects such as nausea or diarrhoea.
It’s much more difficult to consume too much of a whole food. Put quite simply, your body will let you know to stop eating it before it becomes an issue.
In the specific case of turmeric, this is not too grave a concern, however. Turmeric is well tolerated by most people.
We’ve saved our favorite until last: turmeric powder.
Not only are most of us already very familiar with turmeric powder, it’s certainly the most versatile method of taking turmeric.
You can use it in cooking, to make a homemade turmeric tea, or to make a soothing moon milk before bed.
Stir it into your smoothies, add it to curries, sprinkle it into rice to give it a vibrant hue, make a detoxing broth with it: the world is your oyster.
But before you head out in search of turmeric powder, there are a few more things to consider to make sure you get the best option available.
Can I just use turmeric from the spice aisle?
Essentially, there’s nothing to prevent you using ground turmeric from your local supermarket. However, we would recommend looking for a higher-quality product which is made with Ayurvedic use in mind.
This is because you’ll typically be consuming a lot more of it, if you follow Ayurvedic practices, than if you’re just using it occasionally in cooking.
You’ll also likely be unable to find out the amount of curcumin in your turmeric unless you source from a supplier who has had it tested. Supermarket brands generally have no reason to test for curcumin, so it’s difficult to find out how much is in there. Turmeric which isn’t intended for Ayurvedic use tends to be low in curcumin.
Other suppliers who have more of a focus on turmeric as a health product are likely to provide this information. Around 4-5% is considered to be a high amount of curcumin.
What’s more, like olive oil, turmeric is one of the most frequently adulterated products in the world. This is why it’s so important to source from a reputable supplier and check the percentage of curcumin.
What to look for in a turmeric powder
To sum up, here are our top tips for sourcing the best quality turmeric powder:
- Source from an organic supplier. As with any food you’re planning to consume for its health properties, make sure your product is not contaminated with any pesticides or chemicals.
- Take care with heavy metals. In 2016, the American Food and Drug Agency issued a warning over supplies of turmeric which contained unacceptably high levels of lead.(3) Lead can contaminate the soil where turmeric is grown due to fertilizers and environmental pollution, and is absorbed by the plant. It can cause serious health problems, especially in children. To avoid this, choose a supplier which has tested their product to make sure it has not been contaminated with lead or other heavy metals.
- Look for the percentage of curcumin in the product. Suppliers who make turmeric powder for Ayurvedic or traditional use should be able to tell you how much of their product is made up of curcumin. The spice itself contains between 2 and 6% curcuminoids (of which 80% is curcumin).(4)
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