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Turmeric, the spice of life

Secret ingredient: Turmeric
Secret ingredient: Turmeric 04:27

Could these golden stems be the true spice of life? Lee Cowan traveled all the way to Hawaii to find out:

Not far from the surfer’s paradise of Hanalei, on Kauai’s north shore, grows a spice as golden as a Hawaiian sunrise that might just offer our bodies the same kind of healthy glow. 

It’s called turmeric -- a member of the ginger family – that, before it’s washed, looks a bit like an ugly carrot. Turmeric is not a root, but a rhizome, which means its stem is where all the good stuff is found.

Native to India, turmeric has been around for thousands of years, but only recently has it caught on here in the West.

And now, people can’t get enough.

When asked how many thousands of pounds of turmeric he expects to ship out this year, Phil Green replied, “Major tonnage!”

Phil and his wife, Linda, bought a 45-acre farm over a decade ago. They had planned a semi-quiet retirement, until turmeric became one of the most talked-about new superfoods.

Cowan asked, “Did you know what it was?”

“Barely!” laughed Linda. “To me, turmeric was a powdered spice in a jar that stayed on your shelf until you needed it in a curry recipe, you know?”

Curries are its most common use, but turmeric’s taste is only part of its allure. 

One of the most talked-about superfoods, turmeric is being tested for medicinal use against a variety of diseases, from Alzheimer’s and diabetes to cancer. CBS News

Scattered to the wind, it’s a sacred part of Hindu ceremonies. It’s also been used as a dye for fabrics -- it’s even what gives mustard its bright, yellow hue. But the very thing that makes turmeric so colorful -- a compound called curcumin -- is what some researchers say also makes it a powerful weapon against disease.

Biophysicist Ajay Goel has been studying its medicinal qualities at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.

“We’re doing clinical trials on Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, arthritis, diabetes,” said Goel.

“And it seems to have an effect on all these different conditions?” Cowan asked.

“Absolutely. It is such a wonderful compound that has been shown to work in every single instance people have tried.”

Goel says thousands of studies have shown that, in a concentrated-enough dose, the curcumin in turmeric has not only proven to be an effective antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, but also shows promise in preventing and even treating something as serious as cancer.

“What we’re trying to understand is, what are the processes, what are the mechanisms of how it functions?” Goel said.

“So you know it works for the most part, but you’re not quite sure why?”

“Yes, exactly.”

While he says more research needs to be done, the word in already out at trendsetting restaurants like Café Gratitude in Los Angeles. There, turmeric is mixed with steamed almond milk, or blended into a shot served with a dose of cayenne pepper.

Café Gratitude’s co-owner, Ryland Englehart, said, “In a petri dish, that can knock out, like, diseases. I mean, it’s crazy. It’s become a phenomenon. It is the buzz word in the health world.”

So much so, Google’s Food Trends Report called turmeric a rising star of 2016.

Cowan asked Englehart if turmeric was as good as its hype.

“People love it, they come back for it,” he replied. “Do I exactly know what it’s providing for people? No.”

The Greens aren’t sure, either. But if it’s both healthy and a cash crop, so be it.

“Farmers grow what people want, what people demand,” Linda Green said. “And so we kept increasing because it kept selling.”

We’ve all heard the advice: “Eat the colors of the rainbow.” And in Hawaii, this brightly-colored spice just might be the pot of gold at the end of one, too.

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