I shall never forget the first time I visited India, when I was writing about the Spice Trail for the Observer newspaper. As soon as I landed I fell in love with the country, which would become the place where I would eventually find and adopt my daughter, Maya. The colours, light and people seduced me, as did the amazing vegetarian food. Indian cuisine is so diverse, from the coconut-based curries of the south (particular favourites of ours) to the hotter chilli dishes in the north. Wherever you rest your head in my beloved India, you should find something to suit (although sensitive stomachs might do well to take the spice exploration gently).
One spice that’s key to Indian cooking is turmeric, which has recently come under the spotlight for its potential health benefits, particularly in the fight against cancer. The most active part of the turmeric plant is curcumin. Recent studies have shown low rates of certain types of cancer in countries where people eat high levels of curcumin – between 100mg and 200mg a day - over long periods. It’s thought that the curcumin may influence cell signalling and cell changes associated with cancer risk. Some laboratory studies have shown that high doses of curcumin can kill cancer cells and prevent more from growing.
There is a lack of human clinical trials into the benefits of turmeric but a small study for the BBC programme Trust Me, I’m a Doctor, with University College London, showed some interesting results – especially when turmeric was added to food. The suggestion is that because curcumin is fat soluble, it’s absorbed better by the body when it’s eaten as part of a meal. The study was too small to provide any real evidence about the benefits of turmeric but it does suggest that further research may prove fruitful.
Cooking with turmeric
Spices in cooking are particularly good when you’re undergoing cancer treatment because the taste buds can get hit hard and flavours become bland and uninteresting. The joy of turmeric and other spices, such as cumin and paprika, is that they give gentle warmth to a simple soup. Try a touch of fresh ground turmeric with scrambled eggs. Or mix it with yoghurt, ground cardamom and saffron to make a great marinade for chicken, which can then be roasted in the oven and served torn into a salad or as a sandwich.
If you want to take turmeric or curcumin as a supplement, please consult your healthcare team and only do so with the knowledge of your oncologist.
TV’s turmeric test: the results
In Trust Me, I’m a Doctor, Dr Michael Mosley and a team from University College London gave turmeric to 100 volunteers.
• A third were given turmeric powder to add to food
• A third were given the same amount of turmeric as a supplement
• A third were given a placebo pill (a sweetener) to take daily
After six weeks, the researchers found potentially beneficial changes in DNA methylation patterns only in those adding turmeric to their food, but no changes in the DNA of volunteers taking turmeric supplements or the placebo.
For a warming soup for spicing up your taste buds, try my Roasted Butternut Squash & Spicy Sweetcorn Soup
Let me know in the comments below how you enjoy turmeric or any other spicy dishes.