Move over pepper, there's a new King in town.
For centuries, the Spice Throne was held by pepper, revered as 'black gold' during the peak of the spice trade for its flavor and medicinal powers. Pepper is very beneficial for health but it's no exaggeration to say that the most frantically and widely studied spice for its health and medicinal benefits is turmeric. More specifically, it is curcumin, a compound in turmeric, which is responsible for its yellow color, that has captivated everyone's attention. 'Yellow gold' is taking over pantries and pharmacies worldwide.
There is modern scientific evidence for beneficial effects of curcumin on practically every disease known to modern man - cancer, diabetes, arthritis, stomach and intestinal disorders, heart, liver and neurological diseases and more. It's tempting to start throwing this yellow wonder of nature into everything one eats and drinks to prevent and treat disease and while that is what we usually like to encourage, we also take our job of separating fact from fiction quite seriously. After perusing the literature, focusing on articles in more highly regarded journals and reading between the lines, here's our perspective on the true health benefits and limitations of turmeric as a miracle spice:
- Curcumin, the main medicinal molecule in turmeric, has very poor 'bioavailability'. That's a fancy sounding way of saying that curcumin is cleared from the stomach and the liver rapidly after consumption, before it even has a chance to get into the bloodstream to exert its miraculous effects on the body.
- The bioavailability of curcumin is improved by, you guessed it, the previous King of the Spice Castle, black pepper! The addition of piperine, the active compound in pepper, improves the ability of curcumin to get into the bloodstream and other organs of the body. If one wants to benefit from turmeric in food then, it's wise to combine it with black pepper.
- In most studies, purified curcumin is administered at very large doses to see beneficial effects on disease. The New York University Medical School estimates that 1200 - 1800 mg of curcumin a day are required to see therapeutics effects. An average Indian (who, trust me, consumes A LOT more turmeric than anywhere else in the world) gets to about 120 mg of curcumin a day. The point is that if you have an actual disease you want to treat with curcumin, you will need to consider supplements to achieve high enough amounts. The good news is that curcumin is well tolerated at very high doses with minimal side effects except for people with gallstones who should be careful when using curcumin or turmeric in large quantities. Overall, from a food point of view, we see turmeric more as a powerful prevention approach rather than a cure. For curative effects, curcumin supplements at higher doses would be necessary which should be administered only after consulting with a doctor.
With these caveats in mind, we will highlight some of our favorite, most compelling studies on turmeric and curcumin's benefits in disease through the rest of our Turmeric Series. We'll break it down into 1-2 studies per post so that the nerd factor isn't too overwhelming. So put on your science hat and listen up!
Research from the University of California, Los Angeles has demonstrated that curcumin enhances the synthesis of the very important omega-3 fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) in the body. DHA is pivotal for brain health and development and low levels are associated with cognitive defects, anxiety and depression. DHA is either obtained through the diet, with fish oil being the best source, or can be synthesized from a precursor molecule called alpha-linolenic acid found in vegetarian sources like flax seeds and walnuts. The problem is that the body is rather inefficient at making DHA. In this study, researchers found increased DHA production in the brain and reduced anxiety levels in rodents upon curcumin exposure. The authors conclude that vegetarian or diets low in fish may benefit from more turmeric to increase DHA production in the brain, best done with a little pepper for the reasons mentioned above.
TURMERIC FISH CAKES
12 months+, Toddler, Kid, Adult
enhanced DHA synthesis
and reduced anxiety
We're back in Hong Kong after our Vietnam Holiday which we highlighted here, but our hearts are still lingering in the land of lemongrass and fresh basil. These gorgeous fish cakes were inspired by a dish we had on a previous trip to Hanoi called Cha Ca La Vong, a heavenly creation of fish, loads of turmeric and fresh dill. We incorporate those flavors into hearty fish cakes that are a nutritious, delicious feast for the entire family.
We've discussed the superduperfood status of fish previously here. Fish is so important for the developing (and developed!) brain that we really ought to be mindful about ensuring our kids and families get enough good quality, low mercury fish in their diets. Like we mentioned above regarding DHA, the omega-3 fatty acids in fish are not only critical for brain function but also keep unwanted inflammation in the body in check. If your kids don't love fish, don't worry. These tasty and comforting patties will likely please the pickiest eaters. Let's get cooking!
6-8 fish cakes
1 stalk lemongrass
2/3 cup coconut milk
5 black peppercorns
1/4 inch piece of fresh ginger grated
1/2 - 3/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
250 g cod or other white flaky fish like haddock
1 large starchy potato like Russet peeled and roughly chopped
2 teaspoons freshly chopped dill
1/2 lemon, zested
1/2 cup flour for dusting
1/2 - 1 cup breadcrumbs for coating
1 cup plain Greek yoghurt
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Coconut oil for frying
Bruise the lemongrass stalk by smashing the white bulb with a knife or a pestle until fragrant. In a pot large enough to accommodate the fish, bring the coconut milk, lemongrass, peppercorns, ginger and 1/4 teaspoon turmeric to a low boil on a medium flame, stirring occasionally. Let the mixture simmer for 5 minutes until the flavors have infused the milk. Add the fish and continue to simmer for 7-8 minutes on very low heat with the lid on. Turn the heat off and let the pot rest, covered, for another 5 minutes until the fish is poached through. Remove the fish with a slotted spoon onto a plate and set aside to cool.
Add the chopped potatoes to salted, boiling water and cook until tender but not mushy for about 10-15 minutes. Drain the potatoes and return to the pot over a low flame, mashing with a fork or masher until they are dry. Add the fish, 1 tablespoon of the coconut milk mixture, the remaining 1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon turmeric, dill, lemon zest, salt and pepper and mix well without over-mashing the fish. Taste for seasoning adding more salt if necessary.
Mould the mash into fish cakes about 4 inches in diameter, packing them firmly. Prepare 3 plates or shallow bowls - one with flour, one with a beaten egg and one with breadcrumbs into an assembly line. Coat the fish cakes in the flour, transfer to the egg mixture and coat well with a brush and finally cover with breadcrumbs. Place in freezer for 30 minutes.
Mix the yoghurt, olive oil and salt to taste for the dipping sauce. Once the fish cakes have set, heat the coconut oil on a high flame and pan fry the fish cakes for 5 minutes on each side without overcrowding the pan. Drain the patties of excess oil on a paper towel. Serve the fish cakes with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and dollops of the yoghurt mixture with chopped dill. If your kids hate 'green grassy things', skip the garnish - I did so for a toddler potluck and they were a giant hit.