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Turmeric - The Magic Ingredient Of The Indian Kitchen

Posted Nov 08 2009 10:02pm
By Dr.Kamala Krishnaswamy

Mounting health care costs and the consumer desire to maintain health and quality of life have focused the biomedical researchers and public health scientists' attention on diet and disease prevention. Asians in general use more spices and the fame of Indian spices is perhaps older than the recorded history. India is recognized all over the world as “Home of spices”.

The story of Indian spices dates back to over 7000 years into the past and spice box is an intrinsic part of the Indian kitchen. Turmeric, a common spice known in Asia as the poor man's saffron is currently the focus of attention of biomedical scientists for its pleiotropic actions for several diseases of chronic nature. From time immemorial, turmeric has its place in Indian systems of medicine as well as in Indian cuisine. The root and rhizome (underground stem) are used as medicaments. Further, several unique properties make it an ideal choice as a food flavor, colorant, preservative and a cosmetic. Oleoresins extracted from turmeric are in great demand by the food and pharmaceutical industries abroad.

Spices used as food adjuncts enhance the quality of food. They exhibit a wide range of physiological and pharmacological properties due to their bioactive phytonutrients. Current literature accords great importance to the long history of human use, as they are likely to yield novel drug prototypes for chronic diseases such as cardiovascular (heart attack) and cerebrovascular (stroke), neurodegenerative problems (Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis), cancer, inflammatory problems such as arthritis, cataract and toxicity due to drugs and toxins. Ayurveda, an ancient system of medicine from India , has eulogized spices as wonder foods. In this connection turmeric and its active principles - curcuminoids have received considerable attention among biomedical scientists, medical profession, pharmacologists, food scientists and nutritionists all over the world. Literature is replete with mounting evidences that agents such as turmeric or its constituents curcuminoids, promote health and prevent diseases. It exhibits several molecular targets and is similar to many other phenolic compounds found in other spices, fruits, vegetables and beverages such as tea and wine.

Traditionally turmeric has been used as a food preservative as it protects and preserves foods against spoilage and infestations. It masks off flavor and protects against decomposition and bacterial spoilage. These traditional practices are now supported by new scientific evidence and apparently the constituents which protect the plant and food also protect several biomolecules of the body preventing degenerative disorders which result in chronic diseases. Turmeric therefore has kaleidoscopic properties and uses.

Traditionally turmeric has been used as a general tonic, for skin ailments, wound healing, gastrointestinal and respiratory disorders, as anti-infective and for arthritis and several viral disorders. As on date we have evidence that it is a potent anti-inflammatory-anti-oxidant with anti-atherosclerotic and anti-cancer effects. Curcumin promotes wound healing and tissue repair. It controls over reactive inflammatory reactions and improves inflammatory bowel disorder, peptic ulcer and gall stones. Turmeric/Curcumin/derivatives impact blood lipid and platelet aggregation. The emerging scenario suggests that curcumin due to its multiple effects such as arrest of cell cycle, inhibition of signal transduction cascade and transcription factors, growth response gene and growth factors and oncogenes control cancer and metastasis. In keeping with its anticancer effects, it reduces, inhibits or delays tumors in skin, oral cavity, forestomach, duodenum, stomach, colon, breast, prostate, blood cancer (leukemia), liver, lung and ovary. Thus curcumin is a potent chemo preventing and possibly a treating agent as it targets several mechanisms of cancer.

Curcumin has been shown to offer protection against ischemic injury to heart, chronic inflammatory lung diseases, radiation damage, hyaline membrane disease in pre-term infants, pancreatitis, cystic fibrosis, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, toxicity due to pesticides and aflatoxin, renal injury due to drugs and toxins, scleroderma, hepatotoxicity and fibrosis. It even counteracts muscle injury and stress responses. Oxidative damage to lenses resulting in cataract is ameliorated. Diabetes and its complications are also reduced. The various effects of curcumin are mainly due to its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiproliferative and antifibrotic effects It has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral (AIDS & HPV) activity However most of the studies are either in vitro or in vivo in animals.

Thus its use in traditional practice for many ailments is based on scientific logic. Curcumin/turmeric are relatively safe and gram quantities have been used for clinical trials and as part of diet regularly. It has been used for arthritis, post surgical wounds, gall stones, pre-cancer and cancers and peptic ulcer in clinical trials.

Turmeric has a plethora of beneficial biological functions and thus appears to be a versatile spice, which is a natural way to health-a spice of life indeed and a key to chronic diseases prevention through a wide sweep of molecular actions. While more vigorous clinical trials are required, it can be used as an add on or adjuvant therapy for all chronic diseases and degenerative disorders or as food based approach at least in cultures where it has been a part of everyday cuisine as in India, Indonesia, China, Malaysia etc.

There are many other spices of medicinal value used in the Indian kitchens from times immemorial. The food based approaches with selected medicinal botanical or neutraceuticals or dietary supplements may favorably influence the pathogenesis of chronic disorders. Man is what he eats and therefore not only nature and nurture but also nutrition is an important lifestyle modification to live a healthy, happy and productive life.

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