How Turmeric Went from Traditional Medicine to Health Fad
The Columbusing of a rhizome
In my junior year of college, I lived in a basement apartment, the last unit in the building that still had molding, peeling carpet. Perhaps because of those living conditions—and the typical busy, night owl-ish college lifestyle that probably didn’t help matters. I was sick a lot: Huge bouts of sneezing, sporadic large rashes, days lost in fogs of fever and fatigue. While working a shift in my college newsroom, I started having baby coughing fits. It was then that Paresh Dave, one of the newsroom managing editors, turned to me, nodded sagely, and said, “You need to take turmeric.”
Turmeric is a rhizome—in layman’s terms, a root. It looks vaguely like ginger, the most popular of its family members, but its pungent, earthy smell is instantly recognizable as one of the main scents and flavors in South and Southeast Asian food. Its bright yellow color lends itself equally to dyes and curries, but it’s turmeric’s purported pharmacological effects, used for years in traditional medical and religious practices, that have given the rhizome a new life in the Western food world.
In recent years, turmeric has been championed by the same wellness community that extolls chia seeds, remedy juices, and other nominally “exotic” foodstuffs. Most serious health-adjacent stores stock turmeric in some form: Ground up and in capsules, in essential oil form, and in beverages like health “shots” or “golden milk” or lattes. The many purported benefits of turmeric run the gamut of health concerns: From cleaning cuts and burns to relieving gas to increasing blood circulation. For an industry obsessed with foreign or ”strange” miracle foods, turmeric is a natural point of fixation. It’s got a wide range of perceived benefits, can come in a variety of forms, and has now become almost as a code word for a certain kind of “insider” health foodie in the way that “bone broth” or “yak milk” or even “kale” once were.
Of course, this only applies to people who are just discovering the ancient spice now. I didn’t grow up knowing turmeric by name; Dave, who is now a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, passed on his specific cultural knowledge to me years before it became a wellness buzzword. And when I asked him about turmeric, he passed me onto the woman who taught him about it: His mother, Daksha.
“We used to drink turmeric milk as a child, when we had a cold or cough. Turmeric is part of our daily life,” Daksha, who hails from the Indian state Gujarat, explained. Though turmeric is used for health concerns like relieving sunburn pain and as an antiseptic (and of course in cooking), it also has specific cultural applications: “It is tradition in Gujarat, the day before a wedding, a relative will put turmeric paste on the bride and groom’s face, legs, hand, then they can take a shower. [It’s made] religious but most Indian religious things have some scientific reasons.”
This is a far cry from turmeric’s latest turn as a Western food fad, something that’s taken as a supplement to your other (surely) clean eating habits. It is both divorced from its myriad of non-health uses and presented without any social or cultural context, effectively Columbused (i.e. “claimed” by, largely, white people) out of its history and importance for a region numbering billions.
For my own part, I’ve only specifically sought out turmeric, as both capsules and in a juice, when I’m already well on my way to being sick. And though I regularly consume other health-boosting foods like ginger and garlic, turmeric is a sporadic part of my diet. I take it the way other people take Vitamin C powder or medicinal teas or any number of naturally-derived supplements. But despite turmeric’s colloquial renown within Southeast Asian cultures, its “new” wellness bonafides have invited scientific scrutiny.
A new study done on curcumin, one of the central compounds in turmeric, casts uncertainty on its measurable medicinal benefits. This in turn has invited headlines like the one on Quartz: “Forget what you’ve heard: Turmeric seems to have zero medicinal properties.” A close reading of the study isn’t quite as definitive: Rather than directly proving turmeric’s general inefficacy, researchers focus on curcumin’s obfuscating qualities, which frustrate researchers on the hunt for specific, actionable chemical compounds. Turmeric then enters the same nebulous medicinal fugue state in which traditional remedies from around the world, non-Western and otherwise, exist—spurned by modern science’s need for direct correlations, but still an integral part of people’s lives.
Indeed, the only reason most traditional remedies persist is because they’re personally passed on instead of gushed about on a celebrity’s website; they’re the result of accrued knowledge and regional availability rather than the juice shop’s new special. In Daksha’s childhood, turmeric was just a part of daily life: “Fresh turmeric used to be more easily available in winter, so we used to eat it every day. We clean the fresh turmeric, take off the thin skin and cut it into small pieces. Wash it again and dry it a little bit. Put in a clean glass container, add lemon juice and little salt. Eat a few pieces of it every day with dinner.” For her and the many other people for whom turmeric is a literal spice of life, it works for them the way they want it to—which is to say, in a collective cultural memory that transcends time, borders, and both pharmaceutical and Western wellness appropriation.
Perhaps it’s that immersion, both physical and cultural, in turmeric that formulates its perceived medicinal impact. Perhaps it’s all a long-running placebo effect. Whatever the case, wellness fads come and go; turmeric will remain for those who’ve always turned to it in times of need.