BY ELIZABETH FIEND India is an ancient land of exotic foods flavored with sizzling spices, blended in sophisticated, aromatic, mouth- watering ways. Dishes are seasoned with a dazzling array of herbs and spices, ones we rarely cook with like fenugreek, asafetida, black mustard seed, mint, cardamom and rose petal essence. Complex, heady mixes like Tandoori spice are heady with ginger, nutmeg, coriander, cumin, paprika, black pepper, salt, cloves, cinnamon and turmeric, each blend particular to each cook, the recipes passed on down the generations.
Compare the intricacy of Tandoori spice to our “special sauce” — a mix of mayo and ketchup — served on our national dish, the Big Mac, which is seasoned with salt and lots of it. Then compare India’s rates of breast cancer, lung disease and Alzheimer’s to our own. In India, 79 women in a million develop breast cancer each year, while here in the U.S. it’s a whopping 660 per million. India’s rate of lung cancer is even lower, about 30 people per million, while ours is over 600 per million. India also has the lowest rate of Alzheimer’s in the world. So what?s up with this?
Cultures which extend back to ancient times have their own approaches to medicine, and it’s becoming quite clear to modern day scientists that these primordial systems have something going for them. Ayurvedic medicine, a philosophy developed over thousands of years in India, is still practiced today. Derived from the roots of two Sanskrit words, ayus meaning life, and veda, knowledge, Ayurvedic is a holistic healing method which, among many other things, believes food plays an important role in a person’s health.
Taking a clue from this time-worn knowledge, we’ve begun to note that some foods go beyond merely nourishing us. Certain foods or even combinations of foods may reverse the negative effects of aging, pollution and life. Western medicine has dubbed these “super foods.” You may have seen TV commercials for oatmeal, which can lower cholesterol levels or heard that one glass of wine a day can keep your heart healthy and that blueberries are not only delicious but rich in cancer busting antioxidants. All true — these foods are indeed super for us.
Recent studies are showing that it’s not only fruits, vegetables and whole grains which are super, but spices and herbs can play an important role in keeping us healthy, too. Herbs and spices are proving to be powerhouses in disease treatment. But even better, it seems that regular consumption of some spices may actually prevent disease in the first place. How lucky for us that they’re delicious, adding immense flavor and variety with out much in the way of calories and fat.
For thousands of years, Ayurvedic medical practitoners have prescribed the spice turmeric as an anti-inflammatory and for digestive disorders, liver problems, wound healing and skin disease. And now Western science is backing up these claims. Looking for the reason why Indians have such low rates of Alzheimer?s disease and breast and lung cancers, researchers turned their attention to this yellow powder. Indians eat turmeric at practically every meal — in fact, India consumes and produces more turmeric than any other country.
Turmeric, Curcuma longa L, is a long-stemmed plant in the same family as ginger. It has bright green lily-like leaves and conical clusters of trumpet-shaped, pale yellow flowers. Its rhizome (a root like underground stem) is boiled, dried and turned into the yellow powder used to flavor curry dishes and to impart the yellow color in mustard. Its use in India has been documented for more than 4,000 years, and turmeric is still used in Hindu rituals and as a dye for holy robes.
Turmeric has turned out to truly be a super food, rich in both photochemicals and antioxidants, natural protective compounds embedded in food that protect our cells from damage. At the University of Arizona, Tucson, studies suggested that curcuminoids (polyphenolic pigments, like the beneficial pigments in red wine) found in turmeric can ease arthritis by preventing joint inflammation. It works by stopping a particular protein from setting off an inflammatory “chain reaction.” Animal studies done at the University of Maryland Medical Center found turmeric demonstrated anti-tumor action, protected the liver, and had the ability to reduce inflammation and fight certain infections.
Want more? Turmeric is also a mosquito repellent.
In other studies, turmeric was shown to prevent heart attacks and strokes by blocking the build up of atherosclerotic plaque. Positive results from even more studies indicate turmeric may be beneficial in treatment of cancers of the prostate, skin, breast and colon.
In Germany, the herbal regulatory agency called Commission E has approved turmeric for digestive disorders because curcumin (one of the curcuminoids in turmeric) induces the flow of bile which helps bust up fats. This makes turmeric beneficial for the liver as well, because turmeric clears out toxins. It was specifically shown that turmeric protects the liver from damage caused by acetaminophen (Tylenol). So, maybe before you take Tylenol to cure that hangover, you should have a turmeric cocktail first?
What a promising list of attributes — heart, lungs, wounds, infections cancers — just incredible stuff! If I was a money grubbing developer of pharmaceuticals, I’d want to control it. But that’s ridiculous, right? Isn’t turmeric a naturally occurring plant that’s been grown and used for thousands of years by an indigenous population? Can someone attempt to claim ownership of something like that?
Yes, and the term is biopiracy. In 1995, the University of Mississippi Medical Center applied for and received a U.S. patent for the “use of turmeric in wound healing.” This patent awarded the University exclusive rights to sell turmeric. Say what? In 1997, a suit was filed by India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, disputing the University’s right to own a spice. The Council won their case by showing ancient Sanskrit writings that verified turmeric’s diverse and vast use through out India?s history. Eventually the patent was revoked.
It’s very important that scientific methods are being used to investigate the beneficial claims herbalists have been documenting since the dawn of time. However, today’s two-second attention span mentality insists on the magic pill philosophy. We want to isolate “the one thing” that pushes a plant from being merely being food to being medicine, even though this philosophy has proven false time after time. Food is more than the sum of its parts, and nature is complex. The ancients understood this, but we refuse to accept it in our constant battle to tame, control and bend to our will the natural wonders of Earth.
Don’t look for turmeric in a pill. Eat some curry, sprinkle some turmeric into your favorite dishes, add my vegan coleslaw recipe to your cooking repertoire. Or, order some turmeric tea and drink it cold and unsweetened, like they do on Okinawa, the Japanese island famed for its inhabitants’ longevity.
THE FIENDS’ ANTIOXIDANT SLAW
This creamy coleslaw recipe not only contains turmeric, but has the added health benefit of another “warming” spice, cayenne pepper. This salad packs even more of a punch with the vitamins and antioxidants found in red cabbage and carrots, and the minerals found in seeds. It’s also low-cal and so refreshing!
Serves 4, Time: 15 minutes (vegan)
1/2 c. soy milk
3 tbs lime juice
1 tbs maple syrup
1 tsp turmeric
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
1/8 tsp salt
2 carrots, grated
? head red cabbage, grated
4 tsps sunflower seeds
1.) Mix up dressing (use a container with a lid and shake it up, baby)
2.) Pour dressing over grated carrots and red cabbage
3.) Top with sunflower seeds right before serving
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Elizabeth Fiend is Philadelphia’s Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. Most people don’t know it yet, but that will change. Miss Fiend is host of the Big Tea Party. But enough of my yackin’, here’s Elizabeth with the 411 on her column: “Most people don’t think about the fact that science doesn’t determine our government’s regulations and recommendations for health and the environment, it’s sleazy politicking and backroom lobbying that makes the rules and I would like to bring this fact more to the forefront,” she says. “My philosophy is decidedly anti-big business/governmental lobbying but in line with the science of (my idol, ok crush) Dr. Walter Willett, Harvard University School of Public Health. There’s an edge to it, but it’s not goofy new age-y stuff with no basis in fact. And besides all that, I am the most fun of all the health advocates. I’m the only one who consistently wears pink and is brewing absinthe in her kitchen (excuse me, that’s illegal, infusing absinthe).” Word.