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Turmeric: Jekyll & Hyde

tumeric stock

Turmeric, the bright orange-yellow tuber that, in its dried form, is essential to curry powder, has joined the list of foods that are good for you above and beyond proving basic nutrients.

The spice appears in one recent survey documenting foods that purportedly prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

Headshot of Richard Smoley

The list includes many fresh fruits and vegetables (including blackberries, red grapes, peppers, and green leafy vegetables). Turmeric offers “Aß aggregation prevention, neuron protection, synaptic function improvement.” (I don’t know what “Aß aggregation” is, but I conclude from the context that it is bad.) The relevant substance is curcumin. The spice’s health advantages have led vitamin manufacturers to market turmeric powder in capsule form.  

Turmeric can be used both in its familiar dried and fresh forms. The fresh version can be found in produce departments, although when I have seen it, I usually end up realizing that I have no idea of what to do with it.

Nevertheless, you can replace dried turmeric with the fresh version. The basic formula for replacing dried spices with fresh is a 1-to-3 ratio: 1 tablespoon (3 teaspoons) of grated fresh turmeric is equivalent to 1 teaspoon of the dried version.

Turmeric is being touted as a superfood, so it is startling to find that it is also a major killer. “For the millions of South Asians who habitually consume it, turmeric’s skin-staining yellowness can be deceptive and deadly,” says The Economist in a recent article entitled “How to Keep Turmeric from Killing People.”

“To heighten their colour,” the article explains, “the rhizomes from which the spice is extracted are routinely dusted with lead chromate, a neurotoxin. The practice helps explain why South Asia has the highest rates of lead poisoning in the world. The heart and brain diseases it causes—to which children are especially susceptible—accounted for at least 1.4m deaths in the region in 2019.”

In that year, the article continues, “lead poisoning is estimated to have lowered South Asian productivity by the equivalent of 9% of GDP.”

“A staggering 815m children—one in three of the global total—have been poisoned by the metal,” The Economist continues. It’s not just from turmeric, since there are other sources of lead contamination (such as lead cooking vessels and cosmetics).

Bangladesh has taken the lead in combatting this problem. In 2019, it launched a campaign that was so successful that within two years it reduced turmeric adulteration to near zero.

Unfortunately, India, which produces 75 percent of the world’s supply, has not followed suit.

The United States imports nearly $50 million worth of turmeric annually.

Leading suppliers include India, Vietnam, and China.

One study published in the journal Public Health Reports in 2017 said, “A growing body of evidence indicating that turmeric containing excessive concentrations of lead is available for purchase in U.S. grocery stores and that childhood lead-poisoning cases attributable to consumption of contaminated turmeric have occurred in the United States. We hypothesize that turmeric is being intentionally adulterated with lead to enhance its weight, color, or both.”

The Times of India gives some suggestions about how to check for turmeric adulteration at home.

If I were selling either the fresh or the dried version, I would have some tough questions for my supplier.


Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.