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Turmeric Versus Cancer

Recommendations by the President’s Cancer Panel have, historically, stressed individual responsibility: Stop smoking, avoid too much sun, don’t get fat, and beware of STDs. But the panel’s 2008-09 report took a different approach: It emphasized environmental toxins.

Specifically, the panel suggested more research to understand the environmental triggers of cancer. It is estimated that about 80,000 chemicals are used commercially in the United States, yet only a small fraction (200) have been tested for safety. Some of the top environmental toxins include polychlorinated biphenyls, pesticides, phthalates, volatile organic compounds, dioxins, asbestos, heavy metals, chloroform and chlorine. The panel reported that American citizens experience “grievous harm” from the largely unregulated chemicals in our air, food and water.

With such a large number of environmental pollutants, what can we do to reduce the incidence of cancer? Prevention, according to William Li , is the answer to cancer. Li, a physician and head of the nonprofit Angiogenesis Foundation, who recently delivered a TED talk titled “Can We Eat to Starve Cancer?,” points out that only 5 to 10 percent of the incidences of cancer are genetically based. The rest are caused by environmental factors. In 1 out of 3 of these cases, diet is the culprit.

The prevention or promotion of cancer involves numerous, often sequential, biochemical pathways. Many of the plant chemicals in our daily diets, for example, can reduce genetic damage, act as antioxidants or prevent toxic chemicals from causing cellular damage. Furthermore, plants, foods and spices contain not just one active ingredient but hundreds, each of which may have protective qualities. Despite reams of research, there is so much we do not know.

What we do know, emphasizes Li, is that cancers advance because they are able to form new blood vessels and grow — a process called angiogenesis. Li has come up with a list of anti-angiogenic spices, herbs, fruits and vegetables, a group that, as research continues, may increasingly be employed in the fight against cancer. (See list.)

One spice on Li’s list is turmeric, or Curcuma longa, a rhizome native to tropical South Asia which has a striking yellow-orange color when sliced. Like ginger and its cousin galangal, turmeric belongs to the Zingerberaceae family. It’s added as a coloring agent to make mustard yellow and acts as an inexpensive stand-in for saffron in yellow rice in South Asian, Latin America and Spanish cuisines. In South and Southeast Asia, where turmeric is used as medicine, it’s also broadly incorporated in cooking and is a staple in many curry powders.

There are many tasty ways of adding turmeric to your diet. Tarla Dalal, a prolific cookbook author in India, serves up a spicy pickle made of turmeric and ginger that is steeped in lime juice with freshly sliced green chilies and salt. The pickle adds a bright kick to a heavier meal. For a sweeter Southeast Asian concoction, try the candied turmeric that Robyn Eckhardt and David Hagerman share on their informative and beautiful EatingAsia blog.

In Ayurveda, turmeric, or haridra in Sanskrit, is classified as bitter, pungent, astringent, dry and light and is believed to have warming qualities which help regulate stomach and appetite. In classical Ayurvedic texts, it’s used fresh or dried, alone or mixed in powders, pastes, pills and tea-like decoctions. Mothers in South Asia frequently make warm turmeric in milk (haldi dhood) to relieve digestive problems, inhibit a burgeoning cold or reduce a cough and sore throat.

While turmeric is a staple in South and Southeast Asian households and medicinal traditions, it is only recently getting recognition in the West. One of the main polyphenols (organic plant compounds that tend to be colorful and have antioxidant properties) in turmeric, curcumin, reportedly acts as an anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer agent. Last year, researchers at the University College London’s Medical School reported that polyphenols and particularly curcuminoids might be valuable as a complement to pharmaceutical treatment in conditions such as cancer, cirrhosis, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive lung disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Some research suggests that fresh turmeric is more potent than dry.

Culinary and medicinal practices of ancient cultures, passed down for generations offer insight into the healing potential of foods, herbs and spices. Western research is beginning to document these claims. In years to come, perhaps our medicine cabinets will be found in the kitchen, filled with herbs and spices, which we’ll judiciously employ to keep us healthy.

Tarla Dalal’s Fresh Ginger Turmeric Pickle

South and Southeast Asian markets carry fresh and ground turmeric. In this recipe you can use just Curcuma longa and/or add Curcuma amada, a white Curcuma species still used in South Asia


2 tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and cut into thin rounds
2 tablespoons fresh turmeric, peeled and cut into thin rounds (Curcuma longa)
2 tablespoons fresh white turmeric (amba haldi), peeled and cut into thin rounds (Curcuma amada) (optional)
1 tablespoon chopped green chili
¼ cup lime juice
1 teaspoon salt


Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well. This pickle is ready to serve after 1 or 2 hours. Store refrigerated in an air-tight container or a glass jar for up to 1 week.

Turmeric Milk/Haldi Dhood


1 cup whole milk
¼ tsp ground or ½ tsp grated fresh turmeric
1 cardamom crushed
2 tablespoon almond slivers
Sweetener, to taste


Combine all ingredients in a pan, bring to a boil, and simmer for 3 minutes. Sip.

Photo: The spice turmeric, both raw and dried, and ground to a powder.
Credit: Sarah Khan

Sarah Khan, an assistant scientist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, founded the nonprofit Tasting Cultures Foundation, which develops multimedia educational programming about the intersection of food and culture.


Zester Daily contributor Sarah Khan writes about food, culture, climate and sustainability. For her second Fulbright, she is presently traveling in South and Central Asia for a year (2014-15) to tell the stories of female farmers as they contend with a rapidly degraded agricultural landscape, gender inequality, poverty and climate change. She will document their challenges and victories in multiple media. To follow her journey, visit her website.