One of the most fetching culinary spices, turmeric has an intense golden hue. The major ingredient in Indian curries, turmeric is the component responsible for curry’s dizzying color; it’s also commonly used to imbue mustard with its radiant glow.
We’re commonly reminded to eat colorful plant foods because their pigments, which are associated with antioxidants – the wonder nutrients that experts believe protect and repair cells from damage caused by free radicals and that also have important anti-inflammatory properties. Turmeric’s intense color makes it a front-runner in this group of foods; curcumin, a compound found only in turmeric, appears to be the magic ingredient.
A cousin of ginger, this rhizome has a long history of use in herbal remedies, particularly in China, India and Indonesia. Many current studies are looking into turmeric to treat a whole host of health problems, and turmeric has ample other uses as well, as evidenced in the following applications.
- Brighten your pearly whites. Former Miss USA Susie Castillo swears by her recipe for homemade toothpaste, which includes turmeric powder. Although turmeric is known for its staining prowess, it is commonly (if not counter-intuitively) used to whiten teeth – presumably it’s not in contact with the enamel long enough to change the color and you can also sprinkle some on your commercial or other homemade toothpaste and brush as usual.
- Customize foundation. Ashy makeup makes a bad match for luminous skin. Actor Thandie Newton tackles the problem by adding turmeric to tinted moisturizer to achieve a perfect glow that matches her skin tone. And in fact, women in India often use turmeric in face creams and body scrubs to boost the glow factor; sprinkle in a bit at a time until you have the proper tone.
- Spice up your soap. If you make homemade soap, adding several teaspoons of turmeric to it will not only dial up its color, but will boost its skin-friendly benefits as well.
- Save your scalp. Many swear by a combination of olive oil and turmeric to deter dandruff and to improve the overall condition of the scalp. Make a mix of turmeric and the oil of your choice (jojoba or coconut oil would be nice), massage into your scalp and leave on for 15 minutes, then shampoo and style as usual.
- Embellish temporary tattoos. Use turmeric to create golden Mehndi, the temporary tattoos made with henna, or to add a pretty second color to an extant henna tattoo.
- Diminish sprain strain. A traditional homeopathic sprain treatment involves making a paste using one part salt and two parts turmeric and enough water to make it spreadable. Apply to the affected joint and wrap in an old cloth that you don’t mind staining. Leave on for 20 minutes to an hour, once a day. (Don’t do this on body parts that can be seen; you don’t want a temporary yellow tinge!) Also of note: the University of Maryland Medical Center suggests taking turmeric to help reduce sprain swelling and makes the effect of bromelain (an anti-inflammatory derived from pineapple enzymes) stronger. Take 250 to 500 milligrams (mg) each of turmeric and bromelain, three times a day between meals.
- Help tame swimmer’s ear. Natural remedy aficionados recommend using warmed garlic oil to help push the water out of ears affected by swimming; adding turmeric to the mix is said to help as well.
- Soothe a sick stomach. Turmeric has long used to quell bellies that aren’t behaving properly. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends 500 mg of turmeric four times daily to treat an upset stomach.
- Ease achy arthritis. For osteoarthritis, NIH recommends 500 mg twice daily of a specific turmeric extract (like Meriva, Indena); 500 mg four times daily of a non-commercial product has also been used. For rheumatoid arthritis, they note that 500mg twice daily of a specific formulation of curcumin (like BCM-95, Arjuna Natural Extracts, India) can be used.
- Love your liver. According to early experimental research at the Medical University Graz in Austria, the curcumin in turmeric may delay liver damage that can eventually lead to cirrhosis.
- Inhibit skin cancer. Turmeric seems to hold much promise for skin treatments, as well as possibly inhibiting certain forms of cancer. Among other studies, researchers at the University of Texas note that curcumin inhibits the growth of melanoma and may also impede the spread of breast cancer to the lungs.
- Battle other forms of cancer. The American Cancer Society says that laboratory studies have shown that curcumin interferes with several important molecular pathways involved in cancer development, growth and spread. Researchers have reported that curcumin can kill cancer cells in laboratory dishes and also slows the growth of the surviving cells. Human studies of curcumin in cancer prevention and treatment are in the early stages.
- Minimize Alzheimer’s symptoms. A clinical trial using curcumin extract published in the Journal of Neurochemistry found a 30 percent decrease in the size of Alzheimer’s-associated brain plaque in treated mice – in only one week.
- Make longevity tea. Dr. Andrew Weil notes that people in Okinawa, the Japanese island nation with the world’s longest average life span, drink turmeric tea daily. To make your own, boil four cups of water, add one teaspoon of ground turmeric, allow to simmer for 10 minutes, strain, and add ginger and/or honey to taste.
- Use as dye for spicy tie-dyed tees. Yes, turmeric stains fabric … which means that it’s an awesome fabric dye. Add three tablespoons of turmeric to a pot of boiling water, let it simmer for a while, and your dye bath is ready.
- Make marigold-colored play dough. Homemade play dough is as much fun to make as it is to play with once it’s made. And coloring it is especially fun. This recipe instructs on how to make it from scratch, and also how to turn it into a rainbow of colors using, among other natural ingredients, turmeric. (Bonus tip: You can scent homemade play dough with vanilla or peppermint extract.)
- Naturally dye Easter eggs. There’s something magical about mashing up natural dyestuffs in bowls and watching hard-boiled eggs transform into the jewel-like colors found in nature rather than in the lab. Beet juice, onion skin, blueberries, and of course, turmeric all do a bang-up job of the task..
- Make meat safer. Kansas State University researchers discovered that adding turmeric to meat can reduce the levels of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) by up to 40 percent. HCAs form on chicken and meat when cooked over high heat, like in grilling. Consumption of HCAs is linked to higher rates of cancer.
- Enliven bland food. While Frito-Lay may rely on Yellow 6 and Red 40 to enhance its preternaturally vivid snacks like Cheetos and Nacho Cheese Doritos, you can skip the nasty artificial colors and add a dash of turmeric to brighten up otherwise insipid-looking food. Whimsical cooks and moms alike can benefit from adding it to eggs, mashed potatoes, soups, cauliflower, or anywhere else a bit of vibrancy is desired.
- Blend your own curry powder. If there’s one thing turmeric is famous for, it’s the starring role in Indian curry. (There comes a point in every young Western cook’s life when they realize that curry isn’t one single spice, but a blend of many.) Making your own curry blend is simple and tastes remarkably bright and fresh; and you can customize it to reflect your personal taste. A good place to start is here.
- Make delicious dishes. No “uses for turmeric” article would be complete without reminding the reader of all the wonderful food that can be made with turmeric, even if it may not be the most surprising use on the list..
- And last but not least, bake a cake! Turmeric cake? Indeed. This Lebanese dessert is not too sweet and has an odd little earthy kick to it compliments of the turmeric.
Note: Turmeric can be taken in powder or pill form, but use with caution and consult with your doctor first. It’s strong stuff. According to the National Institutes of Health, it is unsafe during pregnancy, can make gallbladder problems worse, can make stomach problems such as GERD (or Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease) worse, and can slow blood clotting and might cause extra bleeding during and after surgery.