Is turmeric too good to be true?

The rise of the golden spice has been incredible, but are all its supposed health benefits setting people up for a rude awakening?

10 October 2017
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There are plenty of fanciful names for turmeric, from Indian solid gold to the spice of life. Almost all refer to its rise to the top of everyone’s shopping list, with restaurants and retailers both big and small trying to get in on the action.

Searches for ‘turmeric’ on Google have gone up globally an incredible 75 percent in the last five years. Companies and individuals alike have been adding it to all sorts of recipes, with even Starbucks getting in on the action at the end of August with its version of so-called ‘golden milk’: turmeric and other spices alongside espresso. It premiered in 200 London Starbucks and will roll out nationwide if successful before the end of the year.

All well and good. But – and there is a big but – the wellness benefits so generously attributed to turmeric have, in large part, remained unsubstantiated in humans. That’s despite significant research. With several supposed superfoods finding themselves under fire for extravagant health claims, are consumers about to get tired of turmeric?

 

Turmeric breakdown

  • Turmeric contains more than 300 bioactive compounds
  • Most prominent in current research are the curcuminoids, which give turmeric its golden colour
  • The most important curcuminoids are curcumin (77%), demethoxycurcumin (17%) and bis-demethoxycurcumin (3%)

Yellow fever

Let’s just recap briefly why turmeric (or rather curcumin, one of its active ingredients) is popular. Described as “nature’s wonder drug” by the Daily Mail last March, studies in vitro (for example in test tubes) have shown it to be a powerful antioxidant with strong anti-inflammatory effects. That means it could play a role in combating every illness from Alzheimer’s to cancer, as well as alleviating symptoms of depression.

As a result, the number of food and drink launches with turmeric health claims grew by 79% globally from 2014 to 2015, and a further 25% between 2015 and 2016, according to Innova Market Insights. This has been boosted by a celebrity foodie following that includes Gizzi Erskine, Deliciously Ella, Madeleine Shaw and the Hemsley sisters.

Famous faces like these create turmeric-fuelled recipes, serve up dishes with a yellow tinge and inspire social media users to post pics of the spice in ochre cakes, stir-fries, puddings, porridge, hummus, soups, bread, marinades – you get the idea. 

Colour blinded

Part of turmeric’s appeal stems from the vibrant colour it imparts to foods. In keeping with such fads as rainbow lattes and mermaid toast, it taps into that segment of the public who like flashy eats that really pop on Instagram (minimal filter required).

What has helped turmeric transcend the domain of passing curiosity is that its golden hue is backed up by health benefits. However, as registered nutritionist Dr. Laura Wyness notes, all the research into turmeric’s healing powers are based upon experiments in vitro or in animals, not in humans (in vivo, for Latin buffs). And people would have to use a lot more than they do now to receive any boost.

“Most of the studies use turmeric extracts that have dosages of curcumin of more than 1 gram per day. This level would be very difficult to reach if you are just using the turmeric as a spice in cooking.” For comparison, the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey puts average intake of turmeric at around 0.07 grams per person per day. So, no problem for people ingesting it as a supplement; more of a problem for people hoping to get any noticeable boost from using it in recipes.

Disabused yet? How about once we reveal that most turmeric products contain at most 3% curcumin, and the degree to which that amount is absorbed is very low? Add to that the recent scientific review that classified curcumin as a compound that generates false-positive results in tests, and it’s hard to pinpoint any value it has to the body whatsoever. 

Down but not out

Okay, so now we’ve completely ruined turmeric’s reputation, here’s the good stuff. Its effectiveness can be enhanced if it’s used alongside black pepper. This is down to its chemical structure, which also makes it fat soluble, meaning any (unproven but possible) health benefits can be enhanced if turmeric is consumed with fatty foods, e.g. avocado.

Plus, turmeric as a flavouring may also reduce the need to add salt – always a win. Then there’s its colouring properties, which we don’t need a medical investigation to ascertain.

Even though the health claims surrounding turmeric are murky, at the very least it won’t do any harm. While that may put a slight dampener on consumer interest, it’s unlikely to completely derail the spice. As Wyness sums it up: “I'll still happily use turmeric in my scrambled eggs and in any curries I cook at home (along with black pepper)!”

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