Turmeric, the vibrantly colored spice used in everything from curries to (for some reason) lattes, is often touted as a wonder food, revered for its supposed anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. But is this humble spice all it’s cracked up to be?
What is turmeric?
Turmeric comes from the rhizomes (underground plant stems) of the flowering plant Curcuma longa, part of the same family as ginger, another plant often celebrated for its therapeutic value.
The use of turmeric is well-established in Ayurveda and other traditional Indian medical systems, plus Eastern Asian medical systems like traditional Chinese medicine. While many of these claims are not backed up by hard scientific evidence, there is certainly an element of truth behind declarations of its medicinal and therapeutic value, which modern science has taken note of.
What is curcumin?
Turmeric’s health benefits are largely attributed to compounds known as curcuminoids, specifically one called curcumin. Along with providing its characteristic orange color, curcumin is the primary bioactive substance in turmeric.
However, there are only minuscule amounts of this compound in the turmeric on your spice rack. By weight, curcumin makes up around 3 percent of turmeric, so you'd need to eat heaps and heaps of turmeric to consume any significant quantity of curcumin.
To make matters worse, it’s also poorly absorbed by the body. To help the compound enter the bloodstream, people often consume turmeric with black pepper. This contains piperine, an alkaloid that enhances the absorption of curcumin and boosts its bioavailability by 2,000 percent. If you take curcumin as a supplement, some concoctions will include piperine or another compound to boost its bioavailability.
Many of the studies cited by turmeric proponents actually involve the use of curcumin or other curcuminoids, not turmeric. It’s also worth considering that participants in these studies are given a huge amount of the compound, far more than you’d get from turmeric tea, for instance.
That said, some studies have indicated that curcumin could have some health benefits. Some preclinical trials have found that curcumin exerts antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticancer, and neuroprotective activities.
What is turmeric good for?
A few studies have found that curcumin has can improve systemic markers of oxidative stress, which can be linked to inflammation. However, all of these studies used some kind of formulation to overcome the bioavailability challenges of curcumin.
Owing to it its supposed anti-inflammatory properties, it’s often suggested that curcumin could be used to treat arthritis, a condition that causes pain and inflammation in joints. One study in India saw 45 patients with rheumatoid arthritis receiving curcumin and diclofenac sodium (a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) alone or in combination. All groups reported their symptoms had eased, but the change was especially high in the curcumin group.
Other snippets of evidence suggest that curcumin may help to protect against a range of diseases, including cardiovascular disease, dementia, and even some cancers.
However, unfortunately, there’s not much high-quality evidence to back up some of the loftier claims of turmeric-touters. Many of the studies are very small and are terribly robust.
The European Medicines Agency says that turmeric can be safely used to relieve mild digestive problems such as feelings of fullness and flatulence. However, they don’t support its medicinal use for anything too serious because of the lack of high-quality clinical evidence.
Over in the US, the National Institutes of Health takes a similarly cautious stance, saying that "no clear conclusions have been reached” about whether turmeric holds any real value for health conditions.
“Turmeric and curcumin have a variety of interesting biological activities, but they’re challenging to study because curcumin is unstable (it easily changes into other substances) and has low bioavailability (not much of it reaches the bloodstream) when it’s taken orally,” the NIH says on its website.
All things considered, the evidence is on the slim side, especially when it comes to claims about using turmeric to treat serious medical conditions. Nevertheless, turmeric is a relatively safe compound to consume – after all, it’s a key ingredient in dishes in Asian cuisine and tastes great. So, feel free to splash your cooking pot with plenty of spice and soothe your full stomach with a turmeric tea, but don’t expect it to perform miracles.