My personal recipe for green curry involves one can of coconut milk, two tablespoons of curry paste, fish sauce and brown sugar, half a lime juiced, a dash of lime zest, holy basil, five bird chilies and two teaspoons of turmeric. Serve over rice with lightly sautéed tilapia.
This is the only benefit of the spice known as turmeric. The most useful dosage advice you can receive is to start with a half measure then add the additional teaspoon into your curry to taste.
Or, to use the far more intelligent language of the National Institute of Health, when it comes to turmeric's medicinal benefits "[n]o double-blinded, placebo controlled clinical trial of curcumin has been successful… [C]urcumin is an unstable, reactive, nonbioavailable compound and, therefore, a highly improbable lead."
In layman's terms, turmeric is absolutely delicious. But it is not a proven cure of anything.
The Background of Turmeric
Turmeric, pronounced like murmur "tur-mur-ick," is often known as "the golden spice" because of its lovely golden brown color. In its raw form, turmeric is a root and looks much like ginger. This isn't much of a surprise, as turmeric is a member of the ginger root family.
Both spices are tropical plants that come originally from south Asia. In the case of turmeric, the plant most likely originated in southeast India, although botanists aren't entirely certain. What is known for sure is that it quickly spread through the region and cultures of south Asia, becoming a staple of cuisines such as Indian, Thai and Malay.
Turmeric as Medicine
In addition to its role in curries, turmeric has a long history as a staple of herbal medicine. For thousands of years, doctors in south Asia have recommended turmeric boiled into tea or served as a powder for aches, pains and far more serious woes.
In the past few years alternative and herbal medicines have rediscovered the history of this spice and turmeric has become the hottest new non-drug to take for … pretty much everything. You can get it in its old fashioned tea and powder form, or have it served up in lattes, smoothies and even candy bars. (The latter somewhat defeats the point of eating healthy, but who's keeping track of these things when there are oxidants to crush?)
As with all trends, what's going on here is a mix of fact and fad.
What Is Curcumin?
Medicinally, the active ingredient in turmeric is a compound called "curcumin." It makes up about 5% of turmeric overall and, as an added fact, is credited for giving the spice its signature color.
Curcumin has been credited as a "healing substance." Its proponents claim properties that include (but aren't limited to): anti-inflammation, pain relief, non-toxicity, antioxidants, lowering your risk of cancer, lowering your risk of heart disease, lowering cholesterol and lowering your ex's credit score.
OK, that last one we made up, but come on. That list actually links to PBS of all places, where an editor actually published the following sentence: "It [turmeric] aids the body in destroying mutated cancer cells before they have a chance to spread to other areas." This is the Michael Bay of medical advice. It reads like a Ninja Turtles Mad Libs crossed with Grey's Anatomy and the Fantastic Voyage.
I would wait in line for that movie, but it is not sound medical advice.
The reality is far more prosaic. Curcumin is actually a series of compounds called curcuminoids. Several of them are found in any given amount of turmeric, and they may have some limited pharmacological applications. There is some evidence that, when applied directly into a cell, curcumin can have anti-inflammatory properties. Other researchers have reported success with limited glaucoma therapies when, again, applying the compound directly into the eye.
Even those properties, if they actually exist, disappear when you take turmeric as a supplement.
It's not just that the successful tests with curcumin have been few and far between, enough to be almost statistically irrelevant (although that's true). It's that the compound is also metabolized far too quickly through the body. When you take a dose of turmeric that 5% of curcumin shoots right through you with very little absorbed into the bloodstream. When delivered through literal nanotechnology, as the glaucoma researchers did, curcumin might have some limited value.
Beyond that, curcumin is what researchers call a Pan-Assay Interference Compound. This is a fairly well known class of chemical compounds that look effective in almost all laboratory settings but with no actual results. PAINS mimic the binding interaction of an actual drug, leading researchers to think that they are inhibiting or activating proteins in a medically relevant way. But because they are only mimicking this interaction, a PAIN compound doesn't actually change the activity of the protein. It's just a false positive.
Worse, PAINS create false positives constantly, making it look like they can influence a vast array of diseases. One of the well-known worst offenders among PAIN compounds? You guessed it, curcumin.
This is why curcumin is thought of as a wonder drug, able to bash down virtually every physical ill. Even WebMD lists over a dozen troubles that curcumin can cure, because that's exactly what PAINS says they're doing. When researchers run tests (called "assays") to find a chemical interaction, curcumin creates a false positive in almost any given situation. This gives rise to the nickname "Invalid Metabolic Panacea."
Because any compound that claims to treat depression, heart disease, cancer, glaucoma, cholesterol and male pattern hair loss… well, let's face it. It's too good to be true. Some users even report yellowing of the hair and nails.
Buzzwords, Toxicity and Turmeric's Potential
Never mind all that, because turmeric has antioxidants! And we hate those rascally oxidants!
It protects healthy cells and fights the bad ones. Somehow! It helps prevent cancer, and we all know cancer is about as bad as it gets. It fights bad cholesterol on behalf of the good. It is natural and ancient, once served by men and women on mountaintops who wore robes. You can even buy it from people in robes today! It isn't even toxic, and if Captain Planet taught us anything it's that toxic is bad.
There are a few truths in life, especially life with the Internet. One of them is that whenever an idea comes packaged with a whole lot of buzzwords it's probably false.
Taking turmeric as a supplement has no demonstrated health benefits. That's not to say someone won't conduct a successful double-blind study tomorrow, but it's about as likely as Ohio State running a clean football program.
Taking too much of it can, in fact, hurt you. Several studies have found that curcumin in high enough doses can cause chromosome and DNA damage. To cause this damage you would have to take an enormous amount of turmeric supplements, but it is possible.
Turmeric doesn't cure anything. There's nothing wrong with taking your bright yellow supplements as long as you don't do so by the pound. Curcumin, as a compound, might have some benefits. Even despite its status as a PAIN, some researchers are still optimistic that it might help fight certain cancers. What little progress has been made in this direction, however, indicates that the compound needs to be delivered directly into the cells by a medical professional.
In other words, don't skip a doctor's appointment because you bought the more expensive latte.
As for my curry recipe, be sure to try it. The turmeric gives it a nice kick.