Turmeric, con or cure?

Up until very recently in the west, turmeric was seen as a simple spice, just another a dry ingredient used mostly in curries for its beautiful yellow colour and earthy flavour. Recently there has been a shift in how turmeric is used and viewed. For centuries, traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic herbalists have boasted the benefits of turmeric, using it as an anti-inflammatory agent to treat various health conditions. With the increase in popularity has come an increase in scientific research to investigate the proposed benefits. The benefits of turmeric have been linked with one group of chemicals contained within the spice, curcuminoids, in particular curcumin.

Most studies to date have used animals or in-vitro (outside of body/in culture dish) methods to investigate specific claims, many with success. For example, a 2011 study found that rats who ate curcuminoids had significantly lowered liver fat and cholesterol, suggesting that curcuminoids have potent lipid-lowering effect.1 But don’t go running for the golden latte yet! Assuming this is directly translatable to humans, which it may not be, this result was only found in rats who were fed 1.0 g curcuminoids per 100 grams of food. Considering turmeric is only about 3.4% curcumin2, you’d be looking at having to eat around 30gs (or 5 tablespoons) of turmeric per 100gs of food to see the same effect using the spice alone. Human studies have used more modest doses of curcumin (up to four grams per day) in an attempt to replicate the lipid lowering effects seen in rats without success, finding that even after 6 months the blood lipids were not altered significantly3. This is the overarching limitation of the studies into curcumin and whether its anti-inflammatory properties are relevant to diet.

Several studies have shown significant improvements in inflammatory conditions ranging from inflammatory bowel disease to rheumatoid arthritis, but curcumin dosages range from 1.5gs per day up to 12gs per day of curcumin4-7. Even on the smallest dosage that would equate to 45g of turmeric per day, and the largest would be a whopping to 350g of turmeric. To put that in perspective, the humble golden latte only has around 2gs of turmeric per serve! Eating such mega-doses of turmeric would be unpleasant to say the least, there is much more proven benefit in eating a varied diet, rich in fruits and vegetables, than eating 350gs of turmeric. There may be some modest benefits to frequent incidental intakes of turmeric, however the evidence to support such notions just isn’t there yet.

Turmeric is a delightful spice and certainly has a place in a balanced diet, alongside all other spices. But don’t be fooled into thinking that a single golden latte every Tuesday is going to cure you of any ailments.

References:

  1. Asai A, Miyazawa T. Dietary curcuminoids prevent high-fat diet-induced lipid accumulation in rat liver and epididymal adipose tissue. The Journal of nutrition. 2001;131(11):2932-5.
  2. Tayyem RF, Heath DD, Al-Delaimy WK, Rock CL. Curcumin content of turmeric and curry powders. Nutrition and cancer. 2006;55(2):126-31.
  3. Baum L, Cheung SK, Mok VC, Lam LC, Leung VP, Hui E, et al. Curcumin effects on blood lipid profile in a 6-month human study. Pharmacological research. 2007;56(6):509-14.
  4. Holt PR, Katz S, Kirshoff R. Curcumin therapy in inflammatory bowel disease: a pilot study. Digestive diseases and sciences. 2005;50(11):2191-3.
  5. Hanai H, Iida T, Takeuchi K, Watanabe F, Maruyama Y, Andoh A, et al. Curcumin maintenance therapy for ulcerative colitis: randomized, multicenter, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Clinical gastroenterology and hepatology : the official clinical practice journal of the American Gastroenterological Association. 2006;4(12):1502-6.
  6. Deodhar SD, Sethi R, Srimal RC. Preliminary study on antirheumatic activity of curcumin (diferuloyl methane). The Indian journal of medical research. 1980;71:632-4.
  7. White B, Zegar-Judkins D. Does turmeric relieve inflammatory conditions? J Fam Pract. 2011;60(3):155-6 [cited Feburary 5 2017]. Available from: http://www.mdedge.com/jfponline/article/64243/does-turmeric-relieve-inflammatory-conditions.

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