Turmeric, the spice that brings the yellow hue to Asian, Middle Eastern and some Kenyan foods, has long been used as a medicine by Indian healers. Now western scientists, too, are discovering its powerful anti-cancer properties and benefits for smokers.
In the last 10 years, curcumin, has been identified by researchers as the active ingredient that produces turmeric’s biological effects. It is now being investigated for potential use as an anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory aid, following research that shows that where turmeric is eaten frequently, the chances of colon cancer are very much lower.
In the UK, cancer specialists are now testing oral turmeric capsules as a treatment for colon cancer, while in the US, the National Institutes of Health has four clinical trials underway to study curcumin treatment for pancreatic cancer, multiple myeloma, Alzheimer's, and colorectal cancer, reports the Wall Street Journal.
When combined with certain vegetables, such as broccoli, kale, turnips and cabbage, scientists in New Jersey have shown that the spice prevents prostate cancer, and can also treat it.
Even smokers can benefit from turmeric. A small clinical trial in 1992 showed that 1.5 g of turmeric taken daily for a month could decrease the amount of mutagens – substance that helps cancerous mutation in cells. In the study, even the urine of smokers was found to be lower in mutagens, than non-smokers, when they were given the spice.
Another study in 1992 showed that turmeric could reduce cholesterol and fight atherosclerosis. Preliminary studies in mice have also shown its potential in blocking the development of multiple sclerosis (MS). And studies on animals prescribed with turmeric show that it acts as digestive stimulant and encourages the release of digestive enzymes that break down carbohydrates and fats.
Not surprisingly, the surge in medical interest in the spice, has seen the sales of curcumin and turmeric supplements soar in recent years, up by 35 per cent between 2004 and 2005 alone.
But the benefits of turmeric come as no news to the Ayuverdic healers of India, who have long seen turmeric as a symbol of prosperity in which the healing property lies in its stalk, which is a cleanser for all parts of the body. According to the healers, turmeric acts as a digestive aid, treats infections, fever and diseases such as arthritis, as well as some cancers, jaundice and heart problems, according to the practitioners.
In Indian and Swahili cooking in Kenya, turmeric is often used in biriani – similar to pilaf, but with the addition of extra spices, to enhance the presentation and flavour of the rice. In addition, local companies use it as an ingredient in curry powders, with local brands such as Royco common in many homes and restaurants.
But in these forms, the turmeric is a dried powder from the root of the spice. In Asian cooking it is more common to use turmeric in its fresh form.
For those keen to use fresh stalk, turmeric is well suited for growing in Kenyan shambas. Also known as curcuma longa, it is mostly grown in tropical South Asia today. But the rhizomatous perennial plant of the ginger family, Zingiberaceae can be grown locally. To thrive, it needs temperatures between 20° C and 30° C, and a considerable amount of annual rainfall.
But turmeric is anyway readily available in local supermarkets. Locally grown turmeric costs around Sh59 for a 6” x 8” nylon paper pack when in season. While turmeric imported from India, which appears slightly brighter than the locally grown form, costs around double the price.
The powdered form is just fine as a remedy, however, according to one health enthusiast, Reeta, who recommend it as a way of relieving the pain of arthritis. Her remedy: “first warm a cup of milk. Before it boils, remove it from the heat and add in a teaspoon of turmeric powder in it. Stir and drink it for up to three times daily.”
Written by Stella Kabura for African Laughter
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