The word “turmeric” refers to the rhizome (or root) of a green, leafy tropical plant. It may also refer to the yellow powdered spice that is produced from the rhizome.
Over the years, turmeric, and curcumin; it’s main chemical compound, have been the focus of many scientific studies investigating the use of these substances to treat a wide range of health conditions.
The turmeric plant is an ancient part of human culture, having been cultivated for more than 4,000 years. It is a perennial herbaceous plant that grows from a rhizome, or root. It requires a long, warm growing season (between 68 and 86 °F) with plenty of rainfall in order to thrive. It is primarily cultivated in hilly regions of India.
When you hear the word “turmeric,” you probably think of the yellow-orange spice that gives Indian curry powder its distinctive color. This powder is extracted from the root of the turmeric plant and dried to produce the spice we know today.
In addition to using the powdered spice in culinary dishes, many people consume fresh turmeric rhizomes and leaves, turmeric oil, and curcumin extract.
Would you be surprised if we told you there are over a hundred species of turmeric, each with different properties?
Fortunately, there is one that is most widely cultivated for human consumption, and it is called Curcuma longa. Like all species of turmeric, it belongs to the Zingiberceae family, which also includes ginger, galangal (also known as Thai ginger), and cardamom. This flowering plant is native to India and Southeast Asia, but it is now cultivated across the world.
Did you know that India is the world’s biggest grower and consumer of turmeric, producing more than 80% of the world’s supply - and consuming most of it as well?
In India, the crop covers more than 540 square miles (140,000 hectares) of land and produces more than 650,000 tons of turmeric each year.
That’s… a lot of turmeric.
Outside of India, turmeric is also cultivated in tropical and sub-tropical regions like Indonesia, Southeast Asia, parts of Australia and Oceania, Peru, Central America, and the Caribbean.
While turmeric is only native to South and Southeast Asia, it can be grown successfully in any tropical climate, and it is becoming an increasingly valuable crop in countries like Jamaica, Haiti, and Belize.
Turmeric has a nine to ten-month growing season, and even though it is a perennial plant, most turmeric farmers re-seed annually. When rhizomes of the turmeric plant are harvested each year, some are processed for human consumption, and the remainder are separated and replanted to propagate new crops. Approximately 5,512 pounds of rhizomes are needed to plant one hectare of land.
Turmeric is a flowering plant that reaches up to one meter, or just over three feet, in height. Each stem of the plant produces long, bright green leaves and flowers that are green, white, and sometimes pink in color. Leaf stalks are between 20 and 45 inches long, and they grow in alternation on the stem. The leaves themselves are typically 30 to 45 inches long and up to 45 inches wide.
These beautiful, elegant leaves and flowers are both edible and used in certain dishes, but it is mainly the rhizome and root of the plant that are used for culinary and medicinal purposes. Much of the plant is stripped during the harvesting process and reused wherever possible.
Below the ground, the plant produces tuberous rhizomes, which are horizontal underground stems that branch out into roots below and stems above.
The rhizome forms finger-like shapes that branch outward from a central bulb, and smaller roots extend downward from the fingers. These rhizomes, sometimes also referred to as roots, are very similar in appearance to ginger root (which is also technically a rhizome). The root system of a single turmeric plant can weigh more than a pound and a half. A typical rhizome is between two and three inches long and one inch wide. It has a brown or tan rough outer bark, like ginger root. The dense, fibrous interior of the rhizome is deep orange or rust-colored, but it turns yellow when ground into a powder.
The main product of turmeric is the aromatic yellow-orange powder used in curries and many other recipes. The powder is made from the dried rhizome of the plant, and it contains curcumin, the bioactive ingredient that is responsible for the rich color and many of the benefits associated with the spice.
Before the spice can be ground, the rhizome must first be cured. The following are the basic steps involved in processing turmeric powder:
Step One: Cleaning
To make turmeric powder, the rhizomes of the plant must be harvested, cleaned thoroughly, and the hard, outer skin peeled away. The small roots and finger-like roots are also separated from the rhizome, leaving the central “mother” root.
Step Two: Boiling
The prepared rhizomes are then either boiled or steamed for close to an hour. This softens the rhizome, making the starch content more gelatinous, and removes some of its natural raw odor. Boiling also helps make the color in the rhizome more uniform.
Step Three: Drying
The root must be completely dehydrated before it can be ground into a powder. The drying process may involve heating it in an oven to evaporate the moisture, using cross-flow hot air, or leaving it to dry naturally in the sun, depending on the harvester.
Natural drying can take anywhere from a week and a half to two weeks, and it is still a common practice; however, artificial drying is sometimes preferred because it seems to produce a more intense color.
Step Four: Polishing and Milling
Once the rhizome has been dried to the point of about 10% moisture content, it will make a metallic sound when tapped or broken. At this point, the rhizome is sufficiently dry, and it can be prepared for grinding. It is first polished to smooth any roughness on the outside of the root. Sometimes, the dried rhizome is polished with turmeric that has already been pulverized. The polished rhizome can then be ground or milled into a fine powder.
What is turmeric made of?
Turmeric root is mainly made up of starch, fiber, protein, fat, and water.
In a 10-gram sample of turmeric powder, for example, there are approximately 7 grams of carbohydrates (including about 2 grams of fiber and .8 grams of sugar), 1 gram of fat, and .8 grams of protein.
Other nutrients present in turmeric include calcium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium, iron, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and ascorbic acid.
The fat content of turmeric includes around 34 different essential oils. One of these, aromatic turmerone, is currently being investigated for its potential to treat neurological diseases.
Two other forms of oils, alpha-turmerone and beta-turmerone, have also been found to have bioactive properties in in vitro studies. Germacrone is another essential oil that is currently being studied for medicinal properties, and lastly, zingiberene and ar-turmerone are two other aromatic oils that contribute to turmeric’s characteristic scent and some disease-fighting properties.
Would you be surprised that turmeric root contains over two hundred distinct compounds?
Perhaps the most important part of the root, at least in terms of the health benefits of turmeric, is a group of chemical compounds known as curcuminoids.
These compounds are among the main contributors to turmeric’s yellow color, and they are also bioactive agents that have anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and anti-microbial properties. Of the three main curcuminoids present in turmeric (diferuloylmethane, demethoxycurcumin, and bisdemethoxcurcumin), diferuloylmethane, more commonly known as curcumin, is by far the most prevalent and has received the most attention.
Curcumin is the chemical compound that gives the root its yellow-orange color and provides many of the health benefits associated with turmeric.
This compound is composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. Curcuminoids altogether make up between 2% and 5% of a turmeric root, and about 77% of the total curcuminoid content is curcumin. Studies on curcumin benefits have revealed several mechanisms by which the compound promotes healing and wellness.
To answer the question “What is curcumin?” we need to go into some detail about how it works within the body.
Curcumin has received a great deal of attention in recent years due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. While turmeric has been relied upon for years in folk medicine traditions around the world, it is only recently that scientists have been investigating how the compound works to combat disease and promote healing.
Both in vitro and in vivo studies have indicated that curcumin benefits include reducing inflammation, destroying the free radicals that cause oxidation, and combatting bacteria, viruses, and other micro-organisms that cause illnesses.
As the potential health benefits of curcumin have become more widely known, many people are looking for ways to incorporate more turmeric into their diets.
Since turmeric powder contains only a small percentage of curcumin (no more than 5%), it is hard to get a significant amount simply by adding turmeric to your diet.
An alternative to eating the powdered spice is to take curcumin in extract form. A high-quality curcumin extract can contain up to 95% of this beneficial substance. Since curcumin provides most of the health benefits in turmeric, extracting curcumin from the root allows you to get a much higher and more therapeutic dose.
Curcumin does not dissolve well in water, so the traditional method of curcumin extraction requires a different solvent, most often ethanol, which is commonly used in extractions. Turmeric powder is dissolved in the liquid ethanol, and the solution is then heated until the liquid becomes steam, leaving behind a solid, concentrated curcumin. This process can be repeated until the desired concentration is reached.
A challenging aspect of curcumin is its lack of bioavailability. When curcumin is consumed, most of it passes through the digestive tract without being absorbed.
Because curcumin is hard for the body to absorb and use, an extract should also contain piperine – also known by its trademarked name Bioperine® - which is a compound derived from black pepper that helps the body absorb curcumin.
Piperine makes up about 5% of black pepper. Like curcumin itself, piperine is a potent extract, and it is often mixed with curcumin to enhance its positive effects. This is the substance that gives black pepper it’s characteristic taste.
Piperine works by helping the body break down and use supplements. The better you are able to absorb curcumin, you’ll see better results faster.
Piperine has been shown to be effective in enhancing the bioavailability of many different drugs, increasing absorption by anywhere from 30% to 200%. However, it is found to be most effective when paired with curcumin.
While only 2-3% of curcumin can be absorbed by itself, studies show that piperine can increase the bioavailability of curcumin by 2000%. It only takes a small amount of piperine to have a dramatic effect on curcumin absorption.
In fact, just 1% of piperine is enough to have a measurable effect, and a standardized curcumin supplement with 5% piperine gets a generous boost.
If you compare a powdered turmeric supplement with a curcumin extract, you’ll see that the extract is the clear winner in terms of the amount of curcumin it provides and the bioavailability of the product.
By offering a much more concentrated dose of curcumin (95%) and by blending the curcumin with black pepper compounds that increase its absorption by up to 2000%, a curcumin extract provides the most health benefits of all turmeric products.
The latest scientific research suggests that the curcumin in turmeric has a great deal of potential to support good health and relieve symptoms of many different types of illnesses.
While low bioavailability may limit the effectiveness of curcumin, the addition of piperine can make it possible to get the full range of benefits from the compound.
The use of turmeric as a dietary supplement is safe even at high doses, and our 95% standardized curcumin extract with Bioperine is the best way to get the benefits of the key bioactive ingredient in turmeric powder.
To learn more about turmeric and how to find the best turmeric supplement on the market today, take a look at Me First Living’s World of Turmeric. You’ll learn why our Premium 95% Standardized Turmeric Supplement is a necessity for many of our customers, with 950 mg of curcumin per 1000 mg dose.
To answer the question “What is turmeric?”, we have provided an overview of the turmeric plant, its components, and their properties.
If you are interested in improving your overall health and wellness or getting help with a specific medical condition, a turmeric supplement may help you get the results you need. Always be sure to look for the best turmeric supplement that will provide the highest percentage of curcumin per dose, and explore our World of Turmeric articles for more information about turmeric’s health benefits, uses, and history.