Meet turmeric — curry’s milder, yellower cousin. It’s what gives mustard and curry their vibrant coloring.
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While a great addition to foods needing that golden hue, turmeric also has anti-inflammatory properties that benefit your health. Registered dietitian Nicole Hopsecger, RD, shares advice on how to safely incorporate turmeric into your daily life.
What is turmeric?
Turmeric is a spice that comes from the turmeric plant. Its major active ingredient is curcumin. “Curcumin gives turmeric that yellowish color,” Hopsecger says. “But beware: It stains easily. Try not to get it on your clothing!”
Turmeric’s treasure lies in curcumin’s benefits. Curcumin has antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Researchers are investigating whether it may help diseases in which inflammation plays a role — from arthritis to ulcerative colitis.
For example, in one study of patients with ulcerative colitis, those who took 2 grams of curcumin a day along with prescription medication were more likely to stay in remission than those who took the medicine alone. “It won’t necessarily help during an active flare-up, but it may help prolong remission,” Hopsecger explains.
Another clinical trial showed that 90 milligrams of curcumin taken twice a day for 18 months helped improve memory performance in adults without dementia. “Researchers thought that the reduction in brain inflammation and curcumin’s antioxidant properties led to less decline in neurocognition,” Hopsecger says. “Curcumin may also have a role in preventing the development of Alzheimer’s disease – however, that’s an area where we need more research.”
Turmeric has also been connected with less arthritis pain and lower cholesterol. “But I wouldn’t rely on a curcumin supplement alone,” Hopsecger notes. “Medical management and dietary changes should come first.”
How should you consume turmeric?
You can take turmeric as a supplement or use it as a spice. “Curcumin is more potent in a supplement because they’ve extracted it from the turmeric,” Hopsecger says. “If you are buying turmeric in the store, it does have some antioxidant properties. While using it as a spice may not have significant impact, it is a great way to season food without salt.”
Always talk to your doctor before starting a dietary supplement, since they could potentially interact with other medications you’re taking, Hopsecger recommends.
If you and your doctor agree, follow these seven tips:
1. Look for “phytosome technology”
Check the label for a product manufactured with “phytosome technology” (or Meriva® turmeric). This type of curcumin has 29 times greater absorption in the body compared to standard curcumin extracts.
2. Check your dose
While doctors commonly recommend taking 500 milligrams twice daily with food, the dose that’s right for you depends on your overall health. More isn’t always better, so talk to your doctor.
“It’s safe to take up to 8 grams per day, but my recommendation would be somewhere on the lighter side: 500 to 1,000 milligrams a day for the general population,” says Hopsecger.
For optimal absorption, try taking with heart healthy fats like oils, avocado, nuts and seeds, she adds.
3. Start low and build up
While most people tolerate turmeric very well, allergy or intolerance is possible, as is a bit of stomach upset. If you have a target dose in mind, start at the lowest dose and work your way up.
4. Being picky pays off
The quality of the raw materials makes a difference. Look for authentic Indian turmeric for cooking. For supplements, find a product with as few inactive ingredients and fillers as possible.
“Make sure it’s marked as USP verified. You’ll see a little silver stamp on the label, which means that it’s gone through rigorous testing to ensure quality and purity,” Hopsecger says.
5. Don’t stock up
With both supplements and spices, buy just enough, then replenish your supply. Their quality is depleted by being repeatedly exposed to air. Store them in a cool, dark place.
6. Don’t stop your medicines
Turmeric can help supplement your conventional care, but it’s not a substitute for medicine.
“No dietary supplement can replace medications or even a well-rounded diet,” Hopsecger cautions. “If your diet is poor, taking a curcumin supplement isn’t going to do anything miraculous.”
7. Listen to your body
While the risk of side effects is low and drug interactions are unlikely, stop taking turmeric if you notice ill effects. Turmeric may cause bloating, and there is a theoretical concern that it may interact with blood-clotting medications. Also avoid it if you have gallbladder disease.
How to cook with turmeric
Not ready to commit to a supplement? While cooking with turmeric doesn’t give you as big of a health boost, you can still benefit by adding it to:
- Scrambled eggs.
- Roasted veggies.
“It’s one of the main ingredients in a curry sauce — it’s potent, pungent, bitter and very earthy,” says Hopsecger. “I always think of that curry smell as being what turmeric tastes like. If you buy the whole, dried turmeric seed and grind it into powder, store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator.”