By Reuben Torres
A dingy corner of Jackson Heights is not where you might expect to find a trendy food, but it’s one of the best places to get a certain Eastern powder that has been enticing health-conscious Americans.
Patel Brothers, a large grocery store on 37th St. that specializes in Indian products, stands out among the smaller, grittier dress and rug shops with its grand and ornate green logo, bearing the company’s slogan: “Celebrating Our Food, Our Culture.” The majority of customers and employees are Indian, and almost everyone inside speaks the language, save for a lone pack of spiffed-up hipsters, beanie and scarf-clad, scouring the store aisles for exotic, ethnic ingredients. Tucked away in the very back wall of the store, among the copious array of spices, lays a stack of packages containing turmeric, one of the more recent so-called superfoods to hit the hype fan.
Turmeric is typically sold in a bright-yellow powder form, which is derived from a rhizome of the same name. According to the employees at Patel, it is most commonly used in curry, though its culinary uses are vast. In fact, turmeric’s use dates back thousands of years.
In some Eastern countries like India, turmeric is a cuisine staple. Sofie Jamal, a 24-year old student in New York of Burmese-Pakistani descent, said that her mother used it in almost everything she made, including cooked spinach with tomatoes and turmeric, and other vegetable-based dishes. And of course, curry. She also mentioned that it is a common home remedy for various ailments.
“My grandma always made me drink this nasty drink of turmeric mixed in milk whenever I was sick,” she said, “and it was a great cure.”
Americans have only recently started to catch on to turmeric’s wonders. Some news outlets like The Today Show suggested it might be “the new kale.” Celebrities have also jumped on the bandwagon. Actress Daisy Ridley –– of “Star Wars” fame –– showed it off in a face mask on her Instagram account. A couple of years back, Shailene Woodley shared her recipe for bone broth –– which includes just “a pinch of turmeric” –– online. And just a few months ago, New York-based nutritionist Marissa Lippert promoted its benefits, sharing her espresso-turmeric latte recipe on the glossy pages of Vogue.
The Butcher’s Daughter, a juice bar and café in the heart of Nolita in Manhattan offers the ancient spice in a glossier and more expensive package: the Honey Bee, a $10 cold-pressed juice blend that includes turmeric root. A 14-ounce bag of turmeric powder goes for $10 at Patel, though the price of the juice drink doesn’t seem to discourage Nolita customers.
“It is one of the most popular items on the menu,” said one of the servers. “That and the orange juice.”
Luisa Martinez, an NYU student, recently purchased turmeric for the first time because she heard of its purported benefits regarding menstruation.
“I saw it that it can speed up your period,” she said, “but I also heard it can fight PMS, cramps, and mood swings.”
At New York Ayurveda Wellness Center, turmeric is used exclusively for its healing properties. Ayurveda is a 5,000-year old Hindu system of medicine that incorporates diet with herbal treatments and yogic exercise. “We use it a lot in our treatments,” said Nisha Saini, an employee at the center. “We prescribe it for arthritis, inflammations, skin treatments, rashes. Also for cleanses and detoxes.” The way that turmeric is prescribed is very specific to the patient, according to Saini. “You mix turmeric with honey, oil, herbs, juices,” she said. “It’s really very customized for the patient.”
Food companies talk about superfoods as a marketing tool, but the label is not officially recognized by the FDA, according to Deborah Kotz, a public affairs specialist at the agency. Of the many purported superfoods that are said to be a treatment for cancer, for example, only a handful are approved by the FDA, including tomatoes, calcium, green tea and antioxidant vitamins. There are few approved claims for other diseases, like diabetes. Turmeric isn’t found on any of the lists.
A 2009 study led by Mohsen Meydani DVM, PhD, director of the Vascular Biology Laboratory at the USDA HNRCA and funded by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) –– the principal intramural scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture–– found that curcumin, which is a bioactive component in curry and turmeric, could lead to lower body fat and lower body weight gain.
The study, whose results were published in the Journal of Nutrition, concludes that: “dietary curcumin may have a potential benefit in preventing obesity.”
Another study, published in January 2017 in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry and conducted by six physicians, chemists and pharmacists, found that existing studies on curcumin’s health benefits were inconclusive, but that more work needs to be done: “No form of curcumin, or its closely related analogues, appears to possess the properties required for a good drug candidate,” according to the study’s authors, who blamed the lack of sufficient research.
“We do not rule out the possibility that an extract of crude turmeric might have beneficial effects on human health,” the study said.Tags: ayurveda, indian food, superfood, Turmeric