Getting to the Root of the Turmeric Trend

You may know turmeric as the deep-yellow spice in Indian curries. Or perhaps you recognize it as the ingredient that makes classic American mustard bright yellow. Maybe you have a jar of ground turmeric buried in your cupboards, or recently spotted fresh turmeric root in the produce aisle at your supermarket. It's that knobby orange thing that looks like a cross between a small piece of ginger and a carrot.

All of a sudden, turmeric is having a moment -- a big shiny moment in the spotlight. Headlines are touting the myriad health benefits of turmeric, Pinterest boards and blogs are bursting with turmeric-filled recipes, new cold-pressed juices and fancy teas infused with turmeric are hitting store shelves and trend trackers are declaring turmeric as the next big thing.

What's going on?

Turmeric has a long history in both Indian Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, and now modern-day scientists are beginning to document the potential benefits of this root from the plant Curcuma longa. Studies suggest turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties. In fact, one of the latest studies found that curcumin supplements (the active compound in turmeric) helped ease post-exercise muscle pain.

Other studies have focused on curcumin's potential role in treating digestive problems and reducing the risk of cancer, heart disease, arthritis and Alzheimer's disease. Yet it's important to keep in mind that many of these studies have taken place in test tubes and animals -- so we really can't draw dramatic conclusions for us humans. Plus, other studies have used an injectable form of curcumin, and results have been inconclusive or conflicting.

The National Center for Complementry and Integrative Health, a division of the National Institutes of Health, concludes: "There is little reliable evidence to support the use of turmeric for any health condition because few clinical trials have been conducted." Even so, the current turmeric buzz has translated to huge sales of turmeric/curcumin supplements -- which have been rising to the top spot in the natural channel, according to the American Botanical Council's HerbalGram.

Why is it that once a food starts gaining recognition for certain health benefits -- from beets to garlic and ginger -- manufacturers starting putting it in a pill? To me, I wish people would put down the supplement bottle and tie on an apron. Instead of shopping for turmeric in a health food store, look for it in your grocery store, and start cooking with it.

Turmeric is terrific, but it's not a miracle root. Like other spices -- which are derived from roots, seeds and bark -- turmeric may have anti-inflammatory benefits. So do other plant-based foods such as deeply-hued fruits and vegetables.

Cook with turmeric -- don't swallow it in a pill. Buy a jar of ground turmeric if you don't have one, or check out fresh turmeric root. You peel and grate it much like fresh ginger. As a general rule of thumb, 1 tablespoon of freshly grated turmeric equals 1 teaspoon of ground turmeric.

Here are seven ways to eat more turmeric:

-- Sprinkle it on roasted vegetables. Turmeric's warm, peppery flavor pairs well with root vegetables, cauliflower and potatoes.

-- Make a marinade. Combine turmeric, plain yogurt and lemon juice to marinate chicken for an Indian-inspired dish.

-- Add it to rice. Add a quarter teaspoon of turmeric to the water when you're making rice to bring out the yellow color and enhance the flavor.

-- Use it with legumes. Add turmeric to lentils and chickpeas.

-- Sprinkle it on eggs. Use a pinch of turmeric in scrambled eggs or in a frittata.

-- Swirl it in a smoothie. Add turmeric to your morning or post-workout smoothie.

-- Add it to soups. Shake in some turmeric when making vegetable or chicken soup.