The Truth Behind Turmeric’s Health Claims

Does turmeric emit a health aura so strong that it’s needless to expound upon the specifics? “Everybody knows about the nutritional benefits of turmeric and how its bioavailability increases when you eat it with black pepper, right?” writes Sharon Flynn in the headnote for fermented turmeric in her cookbook Ferment For Good. (…Everybody?, I whisper to myself, bowing my head in shame.)

But when turmeric is in the hands of Instagram-famous lifestyle bloggers, and on the menu of every plant-forward café, suddenly a symbol of a certain kind of prosperity—with its roots in traditional medicine either ignored, obscured, or muddied—well, it can certainly seem that way. Turmeric? Healthy? Why of course!

But what are the health benefits of turmeric—anecdotal or data-driven, passed down between generations or assessed in a science lab?

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Photo by Julia Gartland

An Extremely Abridged History, plus a Few Considerations

For thousands of years, turmeric has been used in cooking (600 BCE, according to The New Food Lover’s Companion) and in medicine (in The Spice Companion, Lior Lev Sercarz writes that turmeric ointment was prescribed as far back as 250 BCE in the Sushruta Samhita, an ancient Sanskrit text on medicine and surgery, to mitigate the effects of poison), as a remedy for pain, fatigue, liver problems, wounds, and inflammatory diseases like arthritis, among other ailments.

But turmeric as healer is not “ancient” practice to be skimmed over in history books. In a January article in the New York Times, Tejal Rao describes how, in her Kenyan-Indian family, there was “turmeric for a standard runny nose, the dizzy rush of a fever, the ache of moving away from my best friend. Turmeric for a breakout, a particularly tender, slow-to-heal bruise, the anxieties that kept me awake.”

Rao opens her piece by distinguishing herself from turmeric-toon health bloggers: “I want to tell you that I don’t really believe in the magical properties of turmeric,” she says, “that I was radicalized when I was only a child.” Don’t consider Rao among the recently indoctrinated. And while there’s “plenty of research to support turmeric’s antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties,” she concludes that it’s “neither a miracle drug nor a supernatural phenomenon. It’s a pungent, gently bitter tropical plant, related to ginger, with bulky, bright orange roots that have been used for centuries in kitchens across Asia, including India, where it is known as haldi.”

To call turmeric “new” or “trendy” is to ignore its long history—and its nuance. Just because turmeric-chai concentrate appeared in my local grocery store in the past week does not mean turmeric (or chai) did not exist before. “The current breathless reverence of the turmeric trend ignores a simple, but important, banality,” Tara O’Brady explains in the Guardian: “We’ve been doing this for generations, above and beyond fashion and not linked to some ephemeral mysticism. This so-called discovery is a framing that excludes the persevering vitality of the culture, one that is the thriving chronicle of its past and still relevant to its present.”

But even acknowledging turmeric’s roots in Ayurvedic practice, and East Asian medicine, too, neglects to recognize the diversity of Indian cuisine. As Food52 staff writer Mayukh Sen argued in his February article, to plaster haldi doodh (the Hindi name for turmeric milk) onto a grand Indian identity is to ignore large groups of Indians who have never encountered that beverage, or who use turmeric as “a cohort and companion to other spices and flavors” rather than as the miraculous medicine Western media advertises it to be.

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How Indian Is Your “Turmeric Latte”?
by Mayukh Sen

The Healthy Stuff

Now back to the health claims that have, in large part, contributed to the commercialization and commodification of turmeric: How many of these are anecdotal, and how many are scientifically proven? Which isn’t to say that scientific studies, which are expensive to conduct and imperfect in their conclusions, should be the only metric by which we judge “healthfulness.” It is merely to interrogate assertions that are as large in scope as to proclaim that turmeric prevents cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

To read the nitty-gritty details, jump to the end of the article. But the take-home point, as explained by the University of Maryland Medical Center, is that many of the studies have taken place in vitro and in animals—meaning that the effects might not be the same in humans.

Most of turmeric’s health benefits are attributed to curcumin, a member of the curcuminoid group responsible for turmeric’s vibrant orange color (the one you can never seem to get rid of). Curcumin’s been hailed as an antioxidant with anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and anticancer activities, with a potential to prevent diabetes, allergies, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, and other chronic illnesses.

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Photo by Julia Gartland

“a cautionary tale”

But in January, a flurry of articles debunking the health benefits of turmeric turned the tides.

“Forget what you’ve heard: Turmeric seems to have zero medicinal properties,” cried Quartz India. “Everybody Needs To Stop With This Turmeric Molecule,” admonished Forbes. “Turmeric May Be Tasty, But It’s Not a Cure-All,” warned

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Bengali Food is Nearly Inconceivable Without This Ingredient
by Rinku Bhattacharya /Spice Chronicles

Throw all your turmeric out the window! The previous assertions of “an ever-growing mountain of evidence [showing] that boldly colored turmeric with its earthy, bitter-gingery taste may offer a plethora of potential health benefits,” as a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer put it, seemed to crash-burn (at least in regards to Mount Evidence).

But these articles, while attention-grabbing (and mud-slinging), may have have buried much of the nuance of the paper on which they all drew, The Essential Medicinal Chemistry of Curcumin, published in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry early this year.

The article, which was the most comprehensive review of the effects of curcumin to date, concludes that the chemical “is an unstable, reactive, nonbioavailable compound and, therefore, a highly improbable lead” for potential pharmaceuticals. While curcumin has been proposed to treat disorders ranging from erectile dysfunction to baldness to cancer to Alzheimer’s disease, “it’s never yielded a proven treatment,” according to a Nature summary of the review article. Despite thousands of research papers, over 120 clinical trials, and more than $150 million of NIH funding in the last two decades, “there’s no evidence [that curcumin] has any specific therapeutic benefits.”

So why has research persisted? It’s because curcumin belongs to a group of deceptive molecules aptly known as PAINS (pan-assay interference compounds) that contribute to misleading screening results by suggesting that specific chemical activity is occurring even when none exists. “Much effort and funding has been wasted on curcumin research,” Gunda Georg, the co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, told Nature—and yet her team still fields a steady stream of manuscripts on the topic.

A final twist

Part of the problem, Georg explained to Nature, is that researchers have difficulty narrowing in on the specific chemicals in turmeric that have health properties. Extracts from turmeric contain dozens of compounds in addition to curcumin, which is itself a shorthand name for a group of three closely-related molecules. “In some cases,” Nature reports, “researchers may observe promising biological effects but ascribe activity to the wrong molecule.” (Curcumin is also not easily absorbed by the body, though piperine, found in black pepper, has been shown to increase its bioavailability, which is why you’ll find recommendations, like Flynn’s, for consuming black pepper and turmeric together.)

So while Michael Walters, the co-author of the review that launched a fleet of turmeric skepticism, calls curcumin “a cautionary tale,” he’s not writing off research completely. Rather than focus solely on curcumin, which makes up 3 to 5% of turmeric, new studies should look at turmeric more holistically, he says, as an ingredient or a meal component.

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The Comforting, Turmeric-Spiked Chicken Soup I’ve Been Obsessed with for Decades
by Sara Jenkins

While the January review makes the utility of curcumin supplements alone doubtful, it does not necessarily negate the health benefits of turmeric as a complete structure, when all of its molecules are working together, often in the presence of other foods.

Nor does it detract from the fact that turmeric has been administered in families—to heal burn wounds and soothe anxious brains—for thousands of years, and long before “modern” medicine existed.

a few of the claims and the evidence

  • Cancer: According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, the results of research on turmeric’s anti-cancer properties are “still very preliminary.” The website for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center explains that in rats exposed to cancer-causing substances, those treated with turmeric were protected from colon, stomach, and skin cancers. In the lab, turmeric also prevents the replication of tumor cells when applied directly. Neither of these findings can be applied to the human body.
  • Alzheimer’s: Preclinical research suggests that curcumin may benefit the brain (in three case reports, turmeric supplements were associated with improvements in irritability, agitation, and anxiety), but clinical evidence is weak and no trials have tested for dementia prevention.
  • Indigestion/Dyspepsia: A double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that turmeric reduced the symptoms of bloating and gas in those suffering from indigestion.
    Heart disease: While an extract of turmeric lowered cholesterol levels and kept LDL from building up in blood vessels in animal studies, a double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that a dosage of curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, did not improve cholesterol levels.
  • Bacterial and Viral Infections: Turmeric may kill bacteria and viruses, as suggested by test tube and animal studies, but researchers don’t know whether that would be the same in the human body.
  • Inflammation: The University of Michigan refers to curcuminoids, a group of compounds present in turmeric, as having anti-inflammatory properities that may be beneficial in treating Chron’s disease, uveitis (inflammation of the iris), and arthritis.

How do you use turmeric in your everyday life? Does it soothe your stomach, add flavor to your food, dye your clothes? Tell us in the comments below.

The Ingredient All Steaks Need In Order to Be Steaks

Every account of a favorite dish from France, the one that exemplifies the French experience, follows the same formula. First, we’re told, it’s a simple thing, just an ordinary thing—green beans or lamb stew or lemon tart, but one never knew how beautiful or delicious it could be until… Then, the thing (green beans or lamb stew or lemon tart) is sourced to an old bistro or auberge in one arrondisement or another, or in some small town with three names (Evanie-les-Beaux or the like) in Provence. Then, we get the news that the bistro or auberge has since closed or been degraded, and so you have learn to make it at home, where, good as it is, it is mysteriously not as good.

That this formula has all the elements of a cliché will not prevent me from conforming exactly to it in the following account.

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See the shallots; love the shallots.
Photo by James Ransom

My dish is a simple one—an entrecôte with sauce Bercy—and though it is really nothing more than a rib steak with white wine and shallot sauce, it was, the first time I ate it, still the best steak I had ever eaten, leaving me with a lifelong conviction that steak served without shallots is not worth eating at all, like shrimp served without salt. I had it for the first time at Chez René—yes, a lacquered old bistro, yes, in the 5th arrondissement of Paris, all the way east on the Boulevard St. Germain. It sums up France for me because, as a young man, I was startled to have a steak that tasted like a steak, but also later, and more foodishly (which many will take as a typo for “foolishly,” which perhaps it is), because I was startled to have a white wine sauce with a steak. I was accustomed either to the standard red wine sauces—like sauce marchand du vin, the red wine sauce also made with shallots—or else to the excellent whole grain mustard sauce they used to make at Le Voltaire. A filet of beef with sauce béarnaise* is also still a big dish for me, though my travails with béarnaise sauce are ones I have spoken and written of at length.

At Chez René they served the sauce Bercy on the side, and it was so heavy with shallots that at first I thought it was just shallots, with some kind of warm vinaigrette added. But it isn’t: It’s a proper, cooked sauce of shallots with white wine and fond de veau. Just to drive you crazy, there’s a completely different sauce, also called sauce Bercy, made with white wine, shallots, and fish veloute; it’s used, obviously, on fish.

My experience of entrecôte and sauce Bercy left me with the permanent conviction that a steak is not a steak at all if it is not sauced with shallots. My one improvement on the thing is to save—”reserve” is the recipe book word—some caramelized shallots from the pan to sprinkle on top of the steak, in addition to the ones that sit in the sauce. And this, to me, seems echt French, simply because the core idea of French cooking is things with things—not just the one perfect thing with clearly subsidiary things around it, as with good Tuscan steak that has only olive oil and lemon to season it—but one perfect thing with another perfect thing added. (It can be as simple as jarret de porc served with lentils, or as complicated as salmon in a pastry crust.) In fact, I can’t eat steak without the shallots anymore, and sometimes, given the paltry condition of many American steaks, the steak is merely a vehicle for the shallots.

Chez René, in the day, did not do pommes frites—this was not an unusual thing; most bistros didn’t. (They were more a brasserie and restaurant thing.) Pommes sautées are a thing apart from pommes frites, and what I serve. Green beans, too—good French ones enrobed in butter—but don’t get me started on that unless you want to hear the story of the little auberge. Bercy, I should point out, is the neighborhood of Paris where the old wine market was, which perhaps explains the origin; some brave wine merchant ran out of red and used white and… oh, make up your own story.

Tiffany Case, James Bond lovers will recall, sealed her love for Bond by making béarnaise sauce for him on the Queen Mary, on their way home in the novel Diamonds Are Forever, and if Tiffany could make it while the boat was rocking, you’d think I could, but I can’t.

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Adam Gopnik's Entrecôte with Sauce Bercy

By Adam Gopnik

  • 1
    entrecôte or rib steak, preferably bone-in)

  • 8
    shallots, peeled and chopped, roughly (yes, 8)

  • 1/2
    cup white wine

  • 1
    cup veal stock (Eli Zabar’s is the best), or fond de veau. If neither are possible, use chicken stock

  • enough butter and olive oil to caramelize the onions (eyeball)

View Full Recipe

For more on French food (sans white tablecloth), head here.

The $10 Sparkling Wine Giving Veuve Clicquot a Run for Its Money

What’s supermarket Lidl’s answer to that award-winning rosé from Aldi? A $10 sparkling wine.

Earlier this month, dozens of Champagnes won the Silver Outstanding award at the International Wine & Spirit Competition, like the £50 ($60) Veuve Clicquot 2008 vintage Champagne—as did a surprisingly excellent and affordable competitor from Lidl, the £8 ($10) Crémant de Bourgogne Blanc NV. Lidl itself calls the wine “highly underrated”—though probably not for long.

Produced in Burgundy, France, using the same methods and grape varieties as Champagne production, Lidl’s wallet-friendly wine is flavorful and dry with a “well-integrated fizz.” In the UK, Lidl sells an average of 10,000 bottles of Crémant de Bourgogne Blanc NV a month.

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A Magical Trick for Keeping the Sparkle in Your Sparkling Wine
by fiveandspice

Most importantly, while Aldi’s world-renowned rosé is not yet available in the United States, Lidl’s American answer to Crémant de Bourgogne is its Los Andides Crémant de Loire, another $10 sparkling wine produced in the same method as Champagne, though with a wider variety of grapes. This U.S. version recently won its own impressive accolade—the gold medal at the Indy International Wine Competition.

So far, Lidl has a number of stateside locations in North and South Carolina and Virginia, with an estimated 100 stores open by the end of summer 2018. That’s great news for Champagne lovers everywhere, especially those of us on a budget.

Ice Cream Cake Fanatics: This Extra Chocolatey Version Has a Secret.

Ice cream cake, pavlova-fied. We partnered with Talenti Gelato and our favorite ice cream tinkerer Cristina Sciarra to share her recipe for crispy, marshmallowy, chocolatey (!) pavlova gelato cake.

There was a time, not long ago, when I’d make meringues—egg whites beaten with sugar—only as an alternative to pouring egg whites down the drain after spinning pint after pint of ice cream and gelato. Their uniform texture bored me, and since they’re more or less dry all the way through, there’s a powder-fine-crumb-all-down-your-shirt situation to contend with. This was before I understood the difference between the modest meringue and—in my opinion—the superior pavlova.

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Behold: Pavlova and gelato, holding hands, as cake.
Photo by Bobbi Lin

I tasted my first pavlova recently, at a dinner party. They were served individually, with silver dollar-dollops of lemon cream and sunset tumbles of supremed citrus. It was a visually arresting dessert, but the real revelation came after I tasted a forkful: The contrast of shatter-crisp-but-quick-to-melt shell against the satiny, almost tangy inside was such a pleasure that I can recall it perfectly as I write this, months later. I became a pavlova convert.

The pavlova was invented a hundred years ago for the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, in honor of her performing in either Australia or New Zealand; a shallow Google dive reveals disparity over the pavlova’s “true” origins, but either way: It’s extremely popular in both countries. Traditionally, pavlovas are appreciated for their lightness in summertime, served with plenty of fruit and whipped cream. In this iteration though, we’re bringing the richness and depth of chocolate to the party. It’s not classic, but it is delicious.

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Double Chocolate Pavlova-Gelato Cake
by Cristina Sciarra

A touch of food math: All pavlovas are meringue-based, but not all meringues are pavlovas. While meringues bake up dry, one or two extra ingredients added to the egg whites and sugar give a pavlova its hard frame, but pillowy center. Adding acid (in the form of cream of tartar, lemon juice, or vinegar) and/or starch (cornstarch, or arrowroot flour) interacts with the eggs’ proteins to help stabilize the mix, and also ensures a pavlova’s taffy center doesn’t overcook. The result: a crisp exterior and marshmallow interior.

More: For a more robust understanding of the science behind meringue and pavlova-making, see Erin’s essay here.

Not content with choci-fying just the pavlova itself, we are gilding the lily two times over with two different flavors of gelato. This confection is a beautiful mess, and ideal for chocolate lovers who don’t much care for cake. For a gluten-free version, hold the fudge brownie gelato. If you need it to be dairy free, switch out the gelato for a chocolate sorbetto.

And if you’re fully committed to leaning into decadence, be enthusiastic with your toppings: regular or chocolate whipped cream, dark or milk chocolate chips or chunks, chocolate sprinkles, chocolate shavings (made using bar chocolate and a vegetable peeler), cocoa nibs, chocolate drizzle, and/or a cascade of cherries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, currents, and/or strawberries. It’s your pavlova gelato cake; embrace the chocolate.

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Double Chocolate Pavlova-Gelato Cake

By Cristina Sciarra

  • 3/4
    cup (150 grams) sugar

  • 1/2
    cup egg whites (about 4 large eggs), at room temperature

  • 1
    teaspoon cream of tartar

  • 1
    teaspoon cornstarch

  • 1/4
    cup (25 grams) cocoa powder

  • 1
    teaspoon kosher salt

  • 1
    teaspoon espresso powder (optional)

  • 1
    pint dark chocolate gelato

  • 1
    pint brownie gelato

  • 1
    pint hazelnut chocolate chip gelato

  • Dark or milk chocolate chips or chunks, chocolate sprinkles, chocolate shavings, cocoa nibs, and/or chocolate drizzle, for garnish

View Full Recipe

Ice cream, gelato, sorbet. Heck, frozen desserts in general: We adore you. We partnered with Talenti Gelato and ice cream aficianado Cristina Sciarra to share a summer of ice cream treats with you. Stay tuned for more, and see all of Talenti Gelato’s flavors here.

Nigella, Padma (and More) Face Off in Our Bake Off

Earlier this month we told you all about how you could get involved with The Great Food52 Bake Sale, our first fundraising initiative for our charity of the year, No Kid Hungry.

Now we’re excited to fill you in on what we’ve been up to. We’ve invited a few of our friends (like Nigella Lawson, Patti Labelle, Padma Lakshmi and more) to help us throw a Bake Off of epic proportions (Judge Deb Perelman has a nice ring to it, does it not?).

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Photo by Bobbi Lin

They’ve submitted their favorite recipes for everything from cherry pie to chocolate cake and we’ll be baking them all up in the Food52 Test Kitchen. Next Wednesday (June 28), you can join us live on Facebook for the showdown: All of those baked goods submitted by our friends will face off, and Deb Perelman will have the extremely challenging (but tasty) task of determining the winner.

Here’s the full list of contenders and links to their recipes, so you can test them all out at home:

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Photo by James Ransom

Here’s how to get in on the action:

1. Live in the NYC area? Donate to No Kid Hungry via The Great Food52 Bake Off’s Go Fund Me page. If you make the highest bid, we will hand-deliver all of the baked goods from the Bake Off to your office (consider this your chance to be the office hero).

2. Not in NYC? You can still donate here to help the cause!

3. Wherever you live: If you want to wager a guess at which baked good will win the crown, comment on this post with the participant’s name or the name of their baked good—you might earn bragging rights for your predictive powers.

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Photo by Bobbi Lin

In all seriousness, please know that bids of all sizes are greatly appreciated—no matter where you live—because all proceeds raised will go to No Kid Hungry. One dollar can help provide a hungry child with 10 healthy meals. So, whether or not you walk away with a truckload of baked goods, know that your donation makes a big difference towards ending childhood hunger in America.

Also, remember that no matter where you live, you can also participate by hosting a bake sale yourself to raise money for No Kid Hungry (if you’re able to fit one in before the end of June Domino Sugar and C&H Sugar will match what you raise!). Head here for more about how to sign up, figure out what type of bake sale is right for you, and ideas for what to make.

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Photo by Bobbi Lin

If you do host a bake sale, here are a few tips to help make sure yours is the best on the block, straight from our co-founders, Amanda and Merrill:

  • Always offer something to drink alongside the baked goods
  • For visual appeal, arrange the items you’re selling at different levels (can use cake stands)
  • Put small amounts of each item out and refresh as you go
  • Use an umbrella to shield the table if you’re out in the sun
  • Give out the recipes (people always ask)
  • Make sure to provide napkins (or hand wipes for an extra special touch!)

Ready, Set, Bake! and Donate!