At some point over the last couple of years, it felt like everyone became obsessed with turmeric, and the ingredient's reputation transformed from something that's common in primarily South Asian kitchens to a healthy, heal-all spice that's even found at Starbucks. And these days, plenty of people start their day with turmeric for their health, enjoyed in the form of tofu scrambles, porridges, and, of course, lattes—but what are the health benefits of turmeric, exactly?
"Turmeric is a root incredibly rich in antioxidants and is best known for its anti-inflammatory qualities, due to the very active ingredient curcumin," explains Amy Rothstein, founder of DONA Chai, a Brooklyn-based company that brews both chai and turmeric concentrates. That compound curcumin is what gives turmeric its signature pigment, notes Harold McGee in his book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, adding that it's an "excellent antioxidant. This may explain why turmeric is considered to have preservative properties; in India fish and other foods are often first dusted with it before cooking, and it goes into many prepared dishes."
The health benefits of turmeric are nothing new. The spice has been used for generations in Ayurvedic medicine as treatment for inflammation, along with a slew of other diseases and for ceremonial purposes. But in the last 25 years or so, the potential health benefits of turmeric—and curcumin, specifically—have started to be accepted and researched by modern, Western medicine. "More than 7,000 studies have been done looking at the properties and health potential of turmeric in a variety of areas," notes McCormick's corporate dietitian and health and wellness advisor Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, adding, "Much of the research has looked into anti-inflammation." There's evidence that curcumin could be a good wound-healing agent, a way to defend against Alzheimer's disease, and even offer protection against certain cancers.
This research doesn't mean you're going to be able to cure cancer by drinking turmeric lattes, however, and there are still questions about how much curcumin needs to be consumed to actually see any improvements (and if our bodies can absorb enough curcumin from turmeric to see any health benefits at all).
This is why, on a day-to-day basis, the inflammation-busting benefits of turmeric are probably best enjoyed by those suffering with indigestion or other stomach issues. In its Monographs on Selected Medicinal Plants—Volume 1, experts from the World Health Organization list the principal use of turmeric as "for the treatment of acid, flatulent, or atonic dyspepsia." You can also benefit from the antioxidant properties of turmeric, which means that this spice can help delay or prevent certain types of cell damage, according to the National Institutes of Health.
And you really don't need to consume that much turmeric to see the benefits. "500 milligrams [of turmeric] a day is an average recommendation," says Rothstein. So if you're feeling bloated or gassy, go ahead and grab that turmeric latte or tonic, and let that curcumin do its thing. But we also won't judge you if you're just drinking it for the taste.