Field of Science

Turmeric: the spice of life

Herbs and spices have long been considered essential in many cuisines adding interest and flavor to otherwise bland and boring food. Cereal grain endosperm and starchy staples such as potato and cassava make up the overwhelming majority of human calories, but they come up short in terms of taste.

My modestly-hot, award-winning chili almost killed one of my colleagues of Scandinavian descent. An obvious observation is that spicier cuisines are found closer to the Equator. But why is this so? Are people from tropical cultures used to spiciness because most spices are from tropical plants?

In study after study, spices are found to have medicinal benefits. The most commonly used spices of the lower latitudes consistently have
the highest antimicrobial activity. So in hot climates, especially before the widespread use of refrigeration, cultures that used the most spices ate the safest food. People who liked spicy food were healthiest. So the whole thing makes biological sense. Where spices were rare and expensive, and where food was not such a health risk, people learned to like bland.

A chemical in turmeric (yellow powder, upper left) seems beneficial in helping the immune system deal with Alzheimer’s disease.

And now another chemical in turmeric, a member of the ginger family, relieves bowel inflammation and may be useful
in treating Crohn’s disease. I post this to curry favor with my F1.

The essential oils largely responsible for spices’ flavors have long been known to have medicinal qualities, although determining the precise compound, and then safe and effective doses, requires scientific study, something oft overlooked by herbal fanatics. Understand, these are toxic compounds (used in the broad sense of that term) but the amounts in spices when used in food level doses are harmless. No question about it, you can OD on nutmeg, but consumption of spices can be considered part of a healthy lifestyle. And who wants bland anyways? Oh, yes, my Scandinavian colleague.

1 comment:

Larissa said...

tumeric on everything... except our whites!