Every couple of years, magazines, blogs and other media pick up on some kind of new “superfood” that supposedly has health benefits that are nothing short of amazing. Whenever the whole world climbs on a bandwagon in this way, it’s worthwhile taking such claims with a pinch of salt (or your preferred low-sodium alternative).
This is not to say that superfoods don’t exist. But, the attention paid to them creates a skewed perception in the public mind. Brazil nuts may be superior to its poorer cousin peanuts in a number of ways. This doesn’t mean that both can’t find a place in a healthy diet, nor it is true that anyone not eating every superfood on an arbitrary list will have a nutrient deficiency.
One of these new edible superstars is the spice turmeric, or more specifically the chemical curcumin, which makes up about 3% of the whole spice. Therefore, a tablespoon of turmeric powder contains about 100mg of curcumin.
Turmeric powder is the ground root of a plant related to ginger and has been used as a spice and medicine for several thousands of years. While it has little flavor and a slightly bitter taste, it’s often used in curries to impart a robust yellow color.
When cooking, it’s easy to add a teaspoon or so to scrambled eggs or vegetables. Cooking rice with some turmeric will liven it up by turning it an appetizing shade of yellow, while it can also be boiled with milk and honey to produce an interesting evening drink. Note that turmeric is not easily digestible as it is. It has to be cooked, preferably with a small amount of black pepper added. Eating it raw won’t result in an upset stomach, but the curcumin and other beneficial chemicals won’t be absorbed well.
The Health Benefits of Turmeric
Curcumin and related phytochemicals found in turmeric act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatories, which makes it a good way to manage joint pain and arthritis. It promotes good digestion, but more interestingly, has shown some promise in preventing cancer, cardiovascular complaints as well as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
That having been said, the jury is still out as far as real scientific proof of curcumin’s effectiveness in treating or preventing any particular condition is concerned. Different studies have used different methods – for example, administering turmeric versus pure curcumin – and not all can claim to have had the best experimental design. Compounds like curcumin are notoriously difficult to study. Therefore, the actual nature of its biochemical action remains largely unknown.
Curcumin and Turmeric Supplements
As far as dosage is concerned, most systematic research has been done using dosages far higher than the average diet will contain, meaning a teaspoon or more of whole turmeric per day. While the spice is cheap enough to make this level of daily consumption feasible, it may also be far from convenient to practice. The FDA considers turmeric and supplements derived from it to be generally safe, although very high doses may result in stomach complaints.
When choosing a supplement, the first choice to make is to choose between a brand that contains only curcumin and one consisting of concentrated turmeric extract, which will also have some amount of the 100+ other phytochemicals present in the whole spice. Both may have some benefits, but there’s some evidence to suggest that supplements containing more than just curcumin, and including black pepper or its component piperine, are absorbed better and can be more effective. The quality and actual curcumin content of different supplements also vary widely as one result of turmeric’s sudden prominence. Therefore, it pays to choose a high-quality product based on research or professional advice, rather than picking up the first bottle with “turmeric extract” on the label.
As with all natural supplements, don’t expect the benefits to be perceptible immediately. Turmeric is not an instant cure, but may have significant and wide-ranging effects over the long term. If even some of the health benefits claimed for it are true, it will be worth adding it as a regular part of anyone’s diet, or considering a concentrated supplement.