Do you recognize the plant in the picture? It is fresh, ripe, juicy, turmeric. We are lucky in Hawaii to have fresh organic turmeric available most of the year. Turmeric (curcuma longa) is a plant in the ginger family native to SE Asia. Recently, it has received significant media coverage for it's ability to reduce inflammation. Actually curcumin, a natural phenol responsible for the yellow color of the plant, is believed to be the principal agent in subduing inflammation. Here is an exhaustive list of studies on the effects of turmeric and curcumin.
Curcumin is known to be soluble in oil, as well as alcohol (not necessarily combined together, but let me know if you experiment). According to the FAO, it is insoluble in water, as well as acidic conditions. The bio availability of straight turmeric (curcumin) is relatively low, thus the formulation and marketing of various concentrated curcuminoid supplements. Unless you eat foods like Indian currys made with a judicious amount of turmeric powder everyday, it is not likely you will receive adequate benefit from the turmeric diet. In other words, eating or drinking it once a week will likely be as futile as boiling a pot of water with a lighter.
Many plant based ferments are acidic in nature; a result of employing lactic acid bacteria. The fermentation process can make certain nutrients and compounds more bio available, especially in the case of grains. But what about in the case of turmeric? If one were to ferment fresh or powdered turmeric with lactic acid bacteria then they might ask this question: Would fermenting turmeric increase the bio-availability of curcumin?
In fact, I experimented with this myself using fresh organic turmeric finely diced, water, and sugar. My starter culture was a ginger bug- a bubbly concentrate of sugar, water, ginger, turmeric, and indigenous LAB bacteria. Within the first week of fermentation the pH dropped below 4. After another two weeks, an aroma of alcohol developed. As you can see in the picture (week 3) the water menstrum has become yellow. Yet, a majority of the pigment remained in the actual turmeric pieces, a sign to me that the water-based LAB extraction technique produced less than stellar results curcuminoid-wise. Yet does this mean that fermentation does not enhance turmeric? I'm not going to claim yay or nay on the issue.
Searching the Internet, I have found nothing reliable that conclusively states the benefits or downsides of fermenting turmeric. However, an article published in the journal Clinical Cancer Research postulates that the beneficial effects of curcumin may be a result of the "bio-active degradation" it undergoes in the digestive system. In other words, perhaps the benefits of turmeric are from the by-products of curcumin (and whatever the heck else) as it is transformed in the body through the bacterial and enzymatic processes of digestion. If that is so, perhaps fermentation outside the body mimics that process enough to create those beneficial compounds, cited as ferulic acid and vanillin in the study. These beneficial compounds overcome the water solubility problem of curcumin. They also confer beneficial effects, such as anti-cancer properties. Is it possible that fermenting turmeric creates beneficial compounds? It seems likely. Though, because I am a very AMATEUR researcher, this article is really just an interesting thought. Nevertheless, I am intrigued by the idea, and would like to know about any other research being done that negates or confirms anything in this article. It is interesting that in Japan, fermented turmeric somewhat common as a supplement and tea. In fact, I have some in my cabinet right now. It was a gift from a Japanese friend.
In Part 2, I will explore some of the fermented turmeric products on the market as well as some home-made recipes.