'Poor Man's Saffron' Hits the U.S. - OZY | A Modern Media Company

'Poor Man's Saffron' Hits the U.S.

'Poor Man's Saffron' Hits the U.S.

By Pooja Bhatia

Yellow turmeric and red chillies on sale at Khari Baoli spice and dried foods market, Old Delhi, India


The latest entrant to the superfoods category has a near-magical reputation. Can anything be that curative?

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.

Everything’s coming up golden. Turmeric golden, that is.

These days, the deep-yellow spice is popping up all over the United States. Spice marketers report increasing sales, juice bars are taking pains to secure supply and turmeric-infused products are gaining shelf space. Barrels of turmeric fingers — the whole, raw form — have even turned up in grocery stores. They look like little roots of ginger, which is a close relation.

Credit an odd confluence of conditions, including the mainstreaming of natural foods, the cold-press juice craze and yoga. Credit, too, a ready supply from India, which grows most of the world’s turmeric. U.S. imports of the stuff more than doubled in value since 2007, to $11.5 million, according to data from the United Nations

But the main engine of the turmeric craze is the idea that it’s a superfood, with curative properties that seem to verge on the magical. Pop-docs like Mehmet Oz and Andrew Weil nearly fawn over the root — and much of their audience does, too.

Scanty medical evidence might not matter to the ranks of the root-heads buying up turmeric juice, lotion and soap…

3 clear bottles of yellow Turmeric elixir with different colored tops

Workers preclean turmeric roots to processing at Vallabhdas Kanji Ltd, Kochi, India. 

Source Getty

“Our sales have been increasing because of all the health benefits,” says Olivia Dillon, owner of Spice Ace, an épicerie in San Francisco. “People are constantly coming in and asking for turmeric.” She says she began noticing the trend last year, and estimates sales of the powdered stuff have grown 25 percent since then. A growing number of Americans are seeking it out in pill form, too. Sales of turmeric-based supplements grew almost 31 percent in 2012, to $108 million, according to the Nutrition Business Journal.   

Devotees liken turmeric to a miracle root. They say it’s a powerful anti-inflammatory that fights cancer and Alzheimer’s and (it must be said) nearly everything in between. Arthritis. Crohn’s disease. Cuts and burns. Dr. Oz endorses turmeric’s active phytochemical, curcumin, for fighting depression.

The National Institutes of Health is wary of most claims, citing a lack of clinical-trial evidence. (It does say turmeric could be effective for upset stomach and pain relief.) And sellers of turmeric products are wary of making specific health claims, too, because the FDA would not approve. “People come in every day for [medicinal spices],” says Dona Abramson, operations manager at New York’s spice mecca Kalustyan’s. “A spoonful of something and they’ll be cured.” 

But that might not matter to the ranks of the root-heads buying up turmeric juice, lotion and soap, or sprinkling ground turmeric on their scrambled eggs. To them, what matters is a more general notion of well-being that turmeric is said to promote. It’s an all-around wonder drug.

“I really believe in my heart there’s something for everyone in turmeric,” says Daniel Sullivan, owner of TumericALIVE, a young beverage company that has made serious headway over the past few years. “If you have this in your life, you’ll feel better, clearer; you’ll have more energy and a more enriched lifestyle.”

High-end chefs are doing decidedly non-Indian things with turmeric.

Sales of the elixir, which contains 16 grams of turmeric per bottle, are poised to grow 250 percent this year, according to Sullivan. Distribution agreements with Whole Foods, yoga studios and grocers like FreshDirect have helped bring it to a wider swath of customers, mostly female, in the 25-40 age range, Sullivan says.

TumericAlive is likely the most prominent of beverage companies capitalizing on and promoting the turmeric trend. Others include Zana, a concoction made from probiotics grown on two pounds of raw turmeric — it sells for $60 a liter — and Juice Press’ rather more modest Turmeric Tonic Remedy, which goes for $7 per 10 ounces.

There are other highfalutin uses for the root. High-end chefs are doing decidedly non-Indian things with turmeric, like making brioche. And so are mixologists: Fancy a turmeric-banana-bourbon cocktail, anyone? The taste of such preparations varies, because for all the vibrancy of turmeric’s color, its taste is rather mild. Most describe it as a bit earthy or musky; others say it’s astringent or bitter.  

Today, turmeric prices are volatile and commodity traders seem to be having a heyday.

It’s all a long way from turmeric’s rather more unsung roots in Asia. In India, the world’s largest turmeric producer, convictions about its health benefits are grounded in millennia of generations, says Raghavan Iyer, a James Beard-winning chef and author of The Turmeric Trail, a cookbook. Iyer has been teaching cooking classes in the United States for 22 years, and over the past couple of years, a surge of students have become fixated on the spice. 

Many Indian families grow their own turmeric in their gardens, much as Americans grow basil, and so much of the turmeric farmed there is for export. Worldwide exports have grown more than 60 percent since 2008, according to the Indian Spice Board.

Turmeric prices initially rose with demand, Muthuswamy Anandaraj, director of the Indian Institute of Spices Research, told OZY by email. But after farmers in Punjab abandoned their rice paddies to get in on the turmeric boom, the root glutted the market, and prices fell again. Today, prices are volatile and commodity traders seem to be having a heyday. 

It seems the spice trade is heating up again. If the turmeric boom continues, the scramble for sustainable sourcing might get serious. Already, Frontier Natural Products Co-op, a prominent organic spice seller in the U.S., has helped establish training centers to educate Sri Lankan smallholders on organic turmeric farming techniques. And others in the business are conspicuously cagey about their sources. For instance, Spice Ace’s Dillon politely declined to tell OZY where her store finds its golden root. 

But Sullivan, of TumericAlive, was happy to talk about the farm on Maui where he sources his elixir’s turmeric. It was on Maui where Sullivan fell “madly in love with turmeric … like with an individual,” and came up with the idea for his business, in 2009.

“The acceleration of our brand has been astronomical, especially recently,” he says. “And I credit that to the turmeric itself.” 

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.

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