The Spice Trade

Industry insider knowledge, and usage tips on spices and other ingredients

Turmeric: The spice which started a medical revolution

Not all natural remedies are worth anything, but when one ingredient in particular gets the whole world excited, it’s worth a closer look. Once discarded as a fraud herbal remedy, in 1995, Turmeric found itself to be the centre of attention in the medical world. Ever since then, the nature of medicines have been drifting further apart from science, and into the realm of the unknown.

Turmeric is a fairly common spice. It’s used as an essential ingredient throughout India, as well as in a number of other cuisines. But the spice itself is not as innocent or normal as it may seem. Turmeric also has a long history of medicinal usage, in some cases dating back nearly 4,000 years. The Indian system of holistic medicine known as “Ayurveda” uses mainly plant-based drugs or formulations to treat various ailments, including cancer. Many of the most commonly used plant-based formulations involve turmeric in one way or the other.

However, these medicinal uses were often shunned by academics, doctors and science institutions alike. Publications often used them as scapegoats to mock traditional ethnic communities’ way of dealing with problems. This still happens, and often rightly so, when the traditional medicines have little to no impact on wellness. The main issue that needed to be dealt with is the lack of understanding of how these herbal remedies work, and whether they work at all.

Enter Turmeric. Once perceived to only be useful for taste, and as a natural dye, turmeric started a revolution. A U.S. patent on turmeric was awareded to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in 1995, specifically for the “use of turmeric in wound healing.” This patent also granted them the exclusive right to sell and distribute turmeric. Two years passed without much afterthought, besides the founding of a new super ingredient, but then everything changed. An Indian government organisation, The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, filed a complaint on the grounds of piracy. They rightfully argued that this usage has been documented and been in practice for thousands of years in India. It can’t have a patent slapped on it! Eventually this was proven true by detailed documents in ancient Sanskrit texts showing how turmeric had indeed been used for millennia. The patent was stripped down as it was proven to be anti-competitive, but things didn’t go back to the way they were.

Ayurvedic Medicine Shop
Ayurvedic medicine shop by Brian Snelson

The medical world had now discovered something new – a new source of potential cures. A new direction had emerged for medicine, one that was highly profitable. Institutions didn’t need to spend millions to research new drug formulations and components from scratch. They could test these ancient natural remedies to find out which ones worked for the masses. One after the other, new ingredients such as Cloves, Cinnamon and Garlic were all found to have strong connections to healing long term problems. Reducing cancer risk, treating cholesterol, improving metabolism, lowering blood pressure, and even improving bone strength were found.

Suddenly, researchers weren’t quite sure what to think. Are natural remedies really as dangerous as they thought they were? In 1998, a US Senator, Tom Harkin, helped to set up The National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. It was formed solely for the purpose of researching the benefits and truths to natural remedies, and received over $1.5 billion in funding. However, even as recently as 2009, the institution itself was still in two minds about the research. Tom Harkin moaned that it was still in the mentality of finding remedies to disprove rather then finding ones which had worth.

The Economist also found that the rest of the scientific world is still having trouble swallowing the idea that some herbal remedies may have truth to them. They found that in Britain and Australia, horrified scientists are fighting hard against the teaching of alternative therapies in publicly funded universities. And they’re also unwilling to give up ground to natural remedies in mainstream medical care.

In a further analysis in 2012, they found views have finally started to change in mainstream practices too. At the University of Arizona, doctors were promoting the use of approved alternative medicines in addition to traditional ones. They found many firm believers in the industry, who’s point of view was that the medicines promote a more nutritious lifestyle, as well as cure problems, and long term health is the most important concern doctors should have. Few can disagree with such a point of view. Just because a medication as exotic and misunderstood as Turmeric has not been researched, does not mean that it should be disregarded and grouped with the endless list of garbage cures. They need to be researched with scientific methods and approved / disapproved then.

Natural remedies have their own place, and for sure they cannot be blindly trusted. But, as time has proven, many of the age old folk remedies do have substance. At present, a large number of these ingredients (such as Turmeric, Cloves, Aloe Vera, Chamomile) are now unquestionably used throughout the medicinal and cosmetic industry for that very reason. They work.

Our point of view? If they do work wonders, and they taste good, what more can one ask for?

Tips on buying good quality Turmeric

Ensure you’re buying whole, not ground. You can trust whole spices are what they look like. Powders are often impure, and involve mixing in different varieties of turmeric. Sometimes, even other parts of the herb (not the root) are mixed in to keep costs low!

Another thing to look out for is the colour of the turmeric roots you buy. Deeper orange and red indicates a higher concentration of Curcumin, the major essential oil in Turmeric. Light and pale yellow shades indicates very weak levels of the essential oil. A bright yellow-orange colour is needed for the right taste and medicinal benefits.

Turmeric

References:

Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. 2nd edition.
TED Case studies: Turmeric
World’s Healthiest Foods: Garlic
The Economist: Should alternative medicine be taught in medical schools?
The Economist: Medicine and its rivals – The believers
PMC: Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future