Is turmeric the spice of life?

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My girlfriend and I recently spent a splendid long weekend with some friends in Devon. We topped off three days of dietary indulgence with a take-away curry. My mate Big Pete reminded me that curry is officially Britain’s favourite food, and suggested that this was reason enough to write a column about it. I’m an obliging sort of chap, and generally like to take any opportunity I can to emphasise the good in food. However, my initial reaction was that while Indian food may delight the taste buds, the overly oily form it generally takes in this country makes it difficult to make a case for on nutritional grounds. Then again, I thought, curry is rich in potent spices, and maybe there’s some hot news on one of these.

Back at my desk, I kicked off by running a scientific literature search on turmeric ” a spice that has an almost ubiquitous presence in Indian dishes. Many of us will have had occasion to discard a garment bearing the mark of turmeric’s ochre hue. However, while turmeric may be renowned for its staining power, it turns out that it has quite a reputation as a medicinal agent too. In Ayurvedic medicine, turmeric is said to stimulate digestion ” a property that may have special significance bearing in mind that Indian food and overeating often go hand-in-hand. More regular intake of turmeric may help to temper longer-term digestive strife. One study found that giving 500 mg (about 1/8 teaspoon) of the spice, four times a day, helped relieve symptoms in almost 90 per cent of indigestion sufferers.

My excavation of the science struck gold in the form of other studies too. Many of these have focused on a major constituent of turmeric going by the name of curcumin. There is evidence that curcumin has a number of actions in the body that assist the free flow of blood around the system. One study found that curcumin reduces the tendency of clotting components called platelets to stick together. This means that including turmeric in the diet may help prevent the formation of tiny blood clots called thrombi that can block off arteries and trigger heart attacks and strokes. Another study found that curcumin can dramatically reduce levels of unhealthy blood fats called triglycerides ” an effect that is likely to further reduce the risk of circulatory disease.

Other evidence points to turmeric as an anti-cancer agent too. Laboratory studies suggest that this spice has a number of actions believed to reduce the risk of the body’s cells turning cancerous. There is evidence that turmeric may help curtail the growth and spread of existing tumours too. Studies show that curcumin can help to quell the action of cancer-inducing substances called carcinogens. Also, two laboratory studies published this year found that curcumin has the capacity to cause cancerous cells to self-destruct (the technical term for which is apoptosis). In a recent scientific review published in the journal Anticancer Research, it was concluded that curcumin has enormous potential in the prevention and treatment of cancer. Curry lovers everywhere may take comfort from the fact that turmeric really does seem to be the spice of life.

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