In the gold of health
Golden Milk aka Turmeric Latte is a bright yellow drink that is mostly consumed by slender, spandex-clad health freaks. The “super drink” is touted to cure all ills from simple indigestion and the common cold, to more chronic conditions like depression, arthritis, and even erectile dysfunction.
For many years, turmeric was like the mousy governess of a Gothic novel—unremarkable, invisible, ignored, yet essential to the narrative. And like that Byronic hero who falls in love with her only three-quarters of the way into the novel, it took me a while to really “see” turmeric. Don’t get me wrong, I use plenty of turmeric in my cooking. My once-white kitchen counter is a testament to that; it has acquired a yellowish hue that refuses to be scrubbed away. But for most of my life, it was just another spice, a heap of bright yellow I threw into my curries or stir-fries, after the mustard and the asafetida, before the salt and the final touch of jaggery, coconut milk, tamarind paste, or powdered peanuts.
It was an encounter with Golden Milk aka Turmeric Latte in a New York café, however, that got me to sit up and notice turmeric. In its Western avatar, the bright yellow drink, mostly consumed by slender, spandex-clad health freaks, is usually made by blending almond (or coconut) milk with ginger, cinnamon and honey. The result: an exorbitant “super drink” touted to cure all ills from simple indigestion and the common cold, to more chronic conditions like depression, arthritis, even erectile dysfunction (an alternative to that prohibitively expensive Viagra and Cialis, perhaps?)
At first, I turned up my nose at Turmeric Latte. The desi in me simply refused to spend 8 dollars on haldi doodh. Especially after a three-hour-long class in which mostly-white people discussed cultural appropriation with a fervour I have never yet encountered in a person whose culture has actually been appropriated. (Note: This is not a criticism of my class, but an observation—my classmates were great.) But there was something about seeing it up there on a Starbucks board, sharing space with other divaesque beverages like the Pumpkin Spice Latte and the Matcha Green Tea Crème Frappuccino, that glammed up turmeric for me.
Enter Google, the panacea for unbridled curiosity; a quick search for turmeric throws up 5,97,00,000 results. So, here’s the lowdown: turmeric does have a list of scientifically-proven health benefits; curcumin, an active compound in the spice, is believed to reduce inflammation, improve liver function, reduce the risk of cancer, improve digestion, and more. But as far as the superfood label goes—and this holds true of most so-called superfoods—it appears to be a trifle deceptive. For starters, while curcumin is indeed great, multiple studies indicate that reaping its benefits isn’t as simple as swigging golden milk or popping a couple of turmeric pills a day.
A 2017 paper, titled Curcumin: A Review of Its’ Effects on Human Health, published by the Switzerland-based Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI), for instance, points out that while curcumin is indeed present in turmeric and has many health benefits “ingesting curcumin by itself does not lead to the associated health benefits due to its poor bioavailability, which appears to be primarily due to poor absorption, rapid metabolism, and rapid elimination.” The best way to reap its benefits is by pairing it with a substance that increases its absorption; black pepper, for instance, contains a substance called piperine, which increases bioavailability by nearly 2000%, states the same paper. Throwing in some fat helps too; so haldi doodh made with real, full-fat milk or adding the spice to your tadka is great too.
While the good news is turmeric desi-style is probably the best way to get in your daily dose of curcumin, you may want to check before stirring it into your glass of milk or pan of curried potatoes. As a September 2019 Stanford-lead study pointed out, there are indications that lead chromate, a yellow pigment, is being added to turmeric roots to give it that sunshiny ochre. Lead, a perilous neurotoxin, is deadly even in minuscule doses; it causes irreversible damage to the brain and nervous system of children and increases heart and brain disease in adults.
The best thing to do is to buy turmeric whole and conduct this simple kitchen test before adding it to your food. Soak the turmeric in a glass of warm water. Let it stand for a while. If the water remains clear, use it to liven up your dinner or your face (did I forget to mention that it’s great for your skin, too?). If the water turns cloudy, however, just throw it away, and brew yourself a cup of real coffee instead.