Curcumin, the substance responsible for the golden color in turmeric, is known as an anti-inflammatory superstar.
Research over the years has found that curcumin can benefit inflammatory conditions, metabolic syndrome, arthritis, pain, anxiety and potentially more health conditions, per an October 2017 review in Foods. The potential health benefits of curcumin and turmeric seem to be endless, so it's no wonder it's a topic of ongoing research.
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While much of the research on curcumin and health is early, turmeric has been used for centuries in Indian, Eastern Asian and Chinese medicine. In India, turmeric was historically used for disorders of the skin, upper respiratory tract, joints and digestive system, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).
Turmeric vs. Curcumin
Turmeric is a plant in the ginger family whose rhizome (or underground stem) is used in a variety of dishes. Curcumin is a polyphenol that's found in turmeric and is responsible for the variety of health benefits attributed to turmeric as well as the spice's bright yellow color, per the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University.
4 Foods High in Curcumin
Only a few foods contain turmeric naturally — curcumin is only found in plants specifically from the ginger family. Curcumin has a tell-tale yellow color, and the darker the shade, the more curcumin is in the plant.
Turmeric is the plant with the largest amount of curcumin. Curcumin is the main compound found in turmeric, but it also includes other curcuminoids that have their own unique properties, per the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University.
The useful part of turmeric is its rhizome or stem. The stem can be eaten raw, grated or dried and crushed into a powder. Turmeric is often sold as a ground spice and also by the root in some grocery stores. Turmeric can also be used as a food dye and found in foods like mustard and butter to deepen the yellow color.
2. Mango Ginger
Other members of the ginger family contain curcuminoids, including curcumin, but in much smaller amounts than that found in turmeric.
Mango ginger is one plant that has been studied and found to contain curcumin, per a January 2021 review in Metabolites. This member of the ginger family is often pickled and used as preserves versus dried and ground as turmeric is.
3. Curry Powder
Curry powder is ubiquitous in the spice aisle, but did you know it's actually a mixture of many spices? Curry powder can be made of different combinations of spices, but often includes cumin, ginger, black pepper and sometimes cinnamon.
4. Curry Dishes
Curries commonly use turmeric as part of curry powder, paste or on its own mixed with various other spices.
The issue with "curries" is that there is no defined type of food or ethnic origin, as the term originated from western cultures, not the cultures the food actually came from. In fact, many people from the countries where "curries" come from prefer to not use that word and to use the authentic names of the traditional dishes.
Most foods that traditionally use turmeric have a complex and warming flavor due to the spice mixtures used. Try one of these warming recipes with curry or a popular dish using curry powder:
- Chicken Tikka Masala
- Butter Chicken
- Japanese Beef Curry
- Red Lentil Coconut Soup
How to Use Turmeric
Turmeric can be grown in the backyard, purchased in the produce section or bought off the shelf as a powdered spice. Southeast Asian, Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines have famously included turmeric in dishes for centuries.
Try one of these easy ways to sneak more turmeric into your diet.
1. Add to Eggs
Give your breakfast a golden boost by whisking turmeric into your scrambled eggs before cooking them. Looking for a plant-based option? Add turmeric to your tofu scramble to give it an authentic golden yellow color.
2. Make Golden Milk
Mix up your evening tea routine with a cup of golden milk. Let the warming spices calm your body and mind.
3. Sprinkle on Veggies
Sauteed or roasted, give your vegetables a little zest by sprinkling on some ground turmeric. You could also slice or grate the root and add that to your pan of vegetables to roast.
4. Add to a Smoothie
Sprinkle ground turmeric or grate the root into a smoothie for a refreshing way to eat turmeric.
How to Increase the Absorption of Curcumin
One of the downfalls of curcumin is our body's limited ability to absorb and use it. To maximize the absorption of curcumin, try pairing turmeric with black pepper and a fat source.
Piperine, the active compound in black pepper, can increase the absorption of curcumin by up to 2,000 percent, per the October 2017 review in Foods.
Including food that contains fat, like avocado, nuts, cheese or oil can also help improve absorption as curcumin is a fat-soluble compound, per the University of Massachusetts Center for Applied Nutrition.
Tips for Buying and Preparing Turmeric
If you want to make sure you're getting the most curcumin from your turmeric, follow these tips:
- Purchase fresh turmeric roots that are firm to touch. If not used right away, store them in the freezer and take some out as you need it.
- Store dried powdered turmeric in an airtight container out of sunlight. It should have a distinctive ginger-earthy scent. If there is little to no smell, the turmeric is old and should be replaced.
- There's limited research and some controversy on whether or not heat destroys the curcumin in turmeric. For the biggest benefit, try adding near the end of cooking or keep boiling time to less than 10 minutes.
- Foods: "Curcumin: A Review of Its’ Effects on Human Health"
- NCCIH: "Turmeric"
- Linus Pauling Institute: "Curcumin"
- University of Massechusetts Center for Applied Nutrition: "Eat Better Feel Better Using Black Pepper to Enhance the Anti-Inflammatory effects of Turmeric"
- Metabolites: "Characterization of Volatile Organic Compounds in Mango Ginger (Curcuma amada Roxb.) from Myanmar"