Think about a delicious curry, Indian dish, or another Middle Eastern entrée you’ve enjoyed in the past that carried a golden hue. You can likely recall its pungent, zesty taste. Maybe it had a slight ginger-y or pepper-y bite that cut some of the dish’s sweetness.
Turmeric gives these dishes their warm, aromatic flavor and bold yellow-orange color, but you’ll also find it in various other foods and drinks including mustards, soups, dressings, salads, broths, and teas. This popular spice is more ubiquitous than you might imagine, and its purported health benefits reach even wider.
“If there were ever a contest for a spice that deserved a whole book written about it, turmeric would be the clear winner,” writes Dr. Jonny Bowden in The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth.
While it might seem the trendy new spice, medicinally this member of the ginger family goes back nearly 4,000 years. Turmeric was first used in India (some people call it “Indian saffron”) and later China and Africa. Today, India produces nearly all of the world’s turmeric and consumes 80 percent of it.
Leave it to modern medicine to catch up to what Ayurveda medicine has known for thousands of years. Within the last 25 years, over 3,000 in vitro, animal, and human studies have discussed turmeric’s many health benefits. (1)
The Benefits of Turmeric and Curcumin
Most of turmeric’s health benefits come from a polyphenolic compound called curcumin. The principal curcuminoid and most active constituent in turmeric, curcumin gives this potent spice its vibrant, bright yellow-orange hue. (2)
First isolated almost two centuries ago. (7) researchers noted more than 5,600 curcumin citations exist, most of which appeared over the past decade. (8) Glowing terms like antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antifungal often get lavished on curcumin. (9)
I could go on, and you could write an entire book about curcumin’s many, many benefits. You can spend an afternoon browsing PubMed about, say, curcumin and cancer. You’d find plenty to keep you busy for a few hours.
Or you could just make a delicious curry dish and enjoy turmeric’s flavor.
What is Turmeric Good For?
Curcumin aside, let’s weigh the many benefits of turmeric itself. Among its A-list glory includes – hold on for this stellar resume – “antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticancer, antigrowth, anti-arthritic, anti-atherosclerotic, antidepressant, anti-aging, antidiabetic, antimicrobial, wound healing, and memory-enhancing activities.” (8)
That’s a real mouthful. If you wonder what provides turmeric all those benefits, it isn’t just curcumin (although it certainly helps). While curcumin composes about five to seven percent of turmeric, altogether over 100 components have been isolated from turmeric. (1)
Besides curcumin, other curcuminoids in turmeric include demethoxycurcumin and bisdemethoxycurcumin. (2)
Other turmeric components include (don’t worry, there won’t be a spelling test at the end of this article) turmerin, turmerone, elemene, furanodiene, curdione, bisacurone, cyclocurcumin, calebin A, and germacrone. Elemene, for instance, has been approved in China to treat cancer.
In fact, studies over the past decade have indicated that curcumin-free turmeric (CFT) components possess numerous biological activities including anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and anti-diabetic activities. (8)
But you don’t need to know all those components to appreciate how turmeric makes a great way to zest up pretty much any dish that simultaneously dials up its health benefits.
How & Where to Buy Turmeric
You’re probably not going to buy turmeric fresh, although you can. Instead, you’ll find turmeric powder in your grocery store shelves.
Turmeric actually comes from its underground stems, called rhizomes, that are sometimes used fresh. They can also be boiled and then dried in hot ovens, where after they get ground into turmeric powder. (11)
Whenever you buy turmeric, you’ll probably see one of two words: Extract or powder.
Most clinical studies use turmeric extract, not turmeric powder. That’s because whereas very little of turmeric powder is curcumin and curcuminoid compounds, those compounds could be as high as 95 percent in in turmeric extracts.
According to Consumer Lab, “it is not unusual for a capsule containing half of a gram of turmeric extract to provide 400 mg of curcuminoids, while the same amount of turmeric powder… might provide only about 15 mg” of curcuminoids. (12)
That’s not to discount turmeric powder, which as I’ve mentioned has benefits beyond curcuminoids. But because curcumin gets most of the focus, researchers often look at higher-curcuminoid turmeric extract.
Turmeric Belongs in Your Anti Inflammatory Arsenal
You can’t mention turmeric without discussing its anti-inflammatory benefits. Critics haven’t concluded exactly how turmeric provides those benefits, only that it does.
“If you’re interested in why [turmeric] works so well, one school of thought is that it exerts its anti-inflammatory effect by lowering histamine levels; other experts are not sure of the exact mechanism,” says Bowden. “In the long run, who cares? It works as an anti-inflammatory, and does it without any toxic side effects. That’s what matters.”
Turmeric inhibits inflammatory-contributing molecules (9), and studies looking at turmeric or curcumin find it benefits numerous inflammatory diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel disease. (13)
I’ve written about chronic inflammation in past blogs. Researchers argue this “silent killer” (so named by Time Magazine) plays a role in nearly every disease on the planet, including obesity. (14)
One reason chronic inflammatory – and its contribution to cancer, dementia, Type 2 diabetes, and other problems – is so rampant today lies with the terrible diet so many people eat. Sugar is certainly one inflammatory culprit; so are food sensitivities like gluten and dairy. But an often-overlooked source is too many inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids.
In a nutshell, essential fatty acids come in two “flavors”: Anti-inflammatory omega 3s and inflammatory omega 6s. You’ll almost always get both in your diet, but balance becomes key. Too many omega 6s can quickly wreck that balance and ramp up disease.
Whereas our Paleolithic ancestors ate about an equal ratio of omega 3s and omega 6, researchers estimate we eat 25 times or more inflammatory omega 6s today. (15) While most diseases are multifactorial – it isn’t like you can just blame one thing for, say, cancer or dementia – inflammation certainly plays a role in nearly all of them.
To lower inflammation and your disease risk, you’ll want to dramatically reduce your intake of inflammatory omega 6s. [Worth noting: A few omega 6s, like gamma linolenic acid or GLA, are actually anti-inflammatory, (16) but they’re more the exception than rule.]
Those inflammatory foods include processed foods, food sensitivities like gluten and soy, the gazillion Frankenfoods that line even your health food stores (looking at you, soy dogs or agave-sweetened cookies), grain-fed meats, farm-raised fish, eggs from chickens fed grain, corn, and decidedly un-chicken foods, and even seemingly healthy foods like vegetable oils.
You can’t completely eliminate omega 6s, nor do you want to. But even when you intentionally sidestep them, you’ll still get some in your diet. The trick becomes bumping up your omega 3 intake to create balance.
The usual suspects to do that include wild-caught seafood and grass-fed meats (I’ve talked about the best sources in other blogs) but also lots of plant foods including organic produce, flax and chia seeds, and walnuts.
Along with that you’ll probably want to take a quality fish oil supplement, but if you really want to step up your anti-inflammatory game you might also include other nutrients including resveratrol, quercetin, and – you guessed it – curcumin.
Take chronic pain, which often carries an inflammatory component One systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials of turmeric extracts and curcumin found turmeric extract or around 1000 mg/day of curcumin could benefit arthritis. (17)
Turmeric’s anti-inflammatory benefits go beyond disease.
One review of 18 studies found turmeric or curcumin (either ingested used topically, or both) could benefit various skin conditions including acne, atopic dermatitis, and psoriasis. Ten of those studies showed “statistically significant improvement in skin disease severity in the turmeric/curcumin treatment groups compared with control groups.” (18)
Can turmeric provide weight loss benefits? Perhaps, when you use it intelligently among a dietary and lifestyle protocol. (You can’t just sprinkle turmeric on your food and watch the pounds disappear, but you know that…)
That’s because obesity and chronic inflammation go hand in hand. (19) When you carry excess weight, you’re more likely to be inflamed, which makes your body hoard fat. While many studies look at curcumin for weight management in overweight people, (20) turmeric provides a great way to get those benefits.
How to Use Turmeric
I rarely jump on the “perfect food” bandwagon, and among spices you’ve got many like oregano, rosemary, sage, and thyme that also provide anti-inflammatory and other benefits.
Beyond turmeric, many other plant foods provide anti-inflammatory polyphenols including isothiocyanates in cabbage and broccoli, epigallocatechin in green tea, and capsaicin in chili peppers. (21)
My point is, eat and drink a variety of nutrient-rich foods rather than become fixated on one particular “magical” food or ingredient.
That said, if I had to pick a clear spice winner based on its wide array of benefits, turmeric would be the one spice I would absolutely keep in my kitchen cabinet.
Many practitioners recommend using organic turmeric powder liberally on foods.
“Turmeric is also one of the easiest spices to use. It has a really pleasing taste and a beautiful color, and it tastes good on almost any food you can think of,” says Bowden.
Yet let’s face it: You can only consume so much turmeric daily before it starts wearing on you, and I don’t mean just figuratively: That pungent color can really stain clothing and other fabric. Or maybe you just don’t like the taste of turmeric, period.
You can learn to love turmeric. Sprinkle it on sautéed vegetables, soup, avocado or guacamole, poached pasture-raised eggs (if you can tolerate them), smoothies (mask the taste with some berries, lemon, or stevia), or really any food. Start with a tiny amount and gradually increase to taste. You can also make a curry powder or homemade mustard with turmeric.
Turmeric tea is another option, and many varieties combine turmeric with ingredients like ginger, cinnamon, and matcha to disguise turmeric’s decidedly pungent taste. You can also make your own turmeric tea.
Bowden says you can also make a paste with turmeric and water to apply directly on irritated skin or mix it with a little honey to soothe a sore throat.
Buying a quality organic product becomes key however you can consume it, whether that means turmeric powder or fresh turmeric root. Consumer Lab says some powders might be contaminated with lead and other heavy metals as well as – yuck! –insect parts and rodent hairs. (12)
However you use it, always consume turmeric powder with a meal containing dietary fat, which will boost the absorption of turmeric’s fat-soluble curcuminoids.
Turmeric & Curcumin Supplements
If sprinkling turmeric onto food or drinking turmeric tea makes you wince but you still want this fabulous spice’s anti-inflammatory and other benefits, fortunately you’ve got another option with supplements.
Heads up: Buying turmeric or curcumin supplements can become confusing.
Let’s get this problem out of the way: Turmeric (and by extension, curcumin) absorb very poorly, and your body quickly metabolizes and eliminates them. (2)
To increase absorption, some supplement companies add fat-soluble emulsifiers like lecithin to enhance absorption and bioavailability. (22)
Others combine phytosomes (plant extracts bound to phospholipids) improve absorption. (23)
Still others combine turmeric or curcumin with black pepper extract or even fish oil. (24)
With that in mind, you’ll find a wide variety of turmeric and curcumin supplements. Many boast about enhanced bioavailability or absorbability. Meriva®, for instance, claims to improve curcuminoid bioavailability 30-fold. (25) Some of this is marketing hype, while research supports other claims.
Among the formulas I found, including store and professional brands, include:
- Turmeric – unless it says “turmeric extract,” you’re safe to assume this is turmeric powder, a bargain-basement turmeric supplement with no standardized amount of curcuminoids. These will probably be the least-absorbed form, but if you do take them, do so with a meal containing fat.
- Organic turmeric fortified with certified organic black pepper – black pepper will enhance absorption, and organic is certainly important, but this is still simply powder with no standardized percentage of curcuminoids.
- Meriva® Turmeric Phytosome™ – phytosomes increase absorption of turmeric, but this formula is generally standardized to only about 18-22% curcuminoids.
- Turmeric extract (root) standardized to contain 95% curcuminoids – remember extract (unlike powder) contains a much higher amount of curcuminoids, and this one is standardized to contain a high amount.
- Curcumin C3 Complex® is a patented combination of three curcuminoids (curcumin, bisdemethoxy curcumin, and demethoxy curcumin). That’s a step closer to the “whole food” approach of consuming turmeric powder.
- One professional formula contains a proprietary curcuminoid blend with turmeric oil (that provides its own benefits), lecithin, and vitamin E.
- Curcumin with Bioperine® black pepper extract – Bioperine® is a black pepper extract that contains the alkaloid piperine. It is a registered trademark and patented product of Sabinsa Corporation.
My advice would be to go with a professional-quality company and don’t get carried away with the hype. Yes, turmeric or curcumin supplements can help but only when you use them with an anti-inflammatory, whole foods, unprocessed diet.
Add in eight hours’ solid sleep nightly, stress management, meeting basic nutrient requirements, and optimal exercise (meaning not too much or little), and you’ve got a fantastic protocol to burn fat, reverse disease, and feel better.
As a whole (pun intended), organic turmeric powder is a more complete addition to your diet than curcumin or turmeric supplements because it contains curcuminoids plus the many other nutrients turmeric provides.
Curcumin or turmeric supplements won’t do much on their own. They’re meant to supplement or complement, not complete, your healthy diet plan. If you use them, look for one with a phospholipid to increase absorption and take it with a meal containing dietary fat.
Finally, a few caveats if you use turmeric or curcumin supplements. Curcumin can interfere with certain drugs, so talk with your integrative physician when you’re on medications. Anyone with gallstones, ulcers, gastric inflammation, or pregnant women should confer with their physicians before using curcumin supplements. (2)