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Spice Rx: Can Turmeric Cure Cancer? Why You Should Always Have Ball Park Mustard in the Fridge (No, Dijon Will Not Do)

Ball park mustard gets its bright yellow color from turmeric. The popular "curry spice" contains curcumin, which can heal burns--and may be a cure for everything from cancer to heart disease.

Ball park mustard gets its bright yellow color from turmeric. The popular “curry spice” contains curcumin, which can heal burns–and may be a cure for everything from cancer to heart disease.

Not long ago every burner on the stove was going full blast. A garlicky Cuban pork shoulder was sizzling in the oven, while I was cooking Moros y Christianos (black beans and white rice), simmering a peppery orange mojo sauce for the pork, and boiling water for a pot of Lapsang Souchong tea.

A cast iron skillet was lurking on the grate, perilously close to the flame. I grasped the handle to move it and shrieked. It was blisteringly hot. I could actually feel the flesh of my hand searing.

When my head cleared, I found myself at the sink, squirting French’s Classic Yellow Mustard over the burn. I wrapped it in layers of gauze and went on with the show. The next morning my palm was stained yellow, but as for the burn—well, it was gone.

The People’s Pharmacy on NPR once aired a wonderful segment about healing burns with mustard. A listener recalled scorching his hand on the stove—sound familiar?–and plunging it into a gallon jar of ball park mustard during a 3-hour ride to the nearest hospital. When the doctors examined his hand, the burn had vanished.

Mustard’s magic ingredient is turmeric, the spice which gives the ball park kind its chrome yellow hue. Turmeric contains the compound curcumin, which, scientists now believe, may have near-miraculous anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, anti-bacterial—actually anti-everything-bad—properties. Naturally this is nothing new: In India Ayurvedic medicine has used turmeric for over 5,000 years as a cure-all for everything from wounds to stomach problems.

At scientificamerican.com, a January 14, 2007 article, “Spice Healer,” explores current research into the medical uses of curcumin. It all started in the 1990’s when Dr. Bharat Aggarwal, then a Genentech scientist, was searching for a way to stop inflammation associated with the spread of cancer cells. He recalled that in India turmeric was widely used as an anti-inflammatory and decided to try it. “We took some from the kitchen and threw it on some cells….We couldn’t believe it. It completely blocked TNF and NF kappa B [substances that ‘turn on’ genes involved in inflammation and cell proliferation].” Now clinical trials at M.D. Anderson and other institutions are investigating the targeted use of curcumin to cure most of what ails us, including Alzheimer’s, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

A medical miracle? Well, it’s not certain. A 2004 Israeli study suggests that curcumin can “encourage the survival of cancer cells” and tumor growth when it circulates freely in the blood stream. Clearly more research is in order—and a host of biotech companies, including Aggarwal’s own Curry Pharmaceuticals, are racing to do just that.

In the meantime, I’m keeping a big bottle of French’s in the refrigerator. Oh, in case you’re wondering, Dijon won’t do much for burns: It contains no turmeric.

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