Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

Turmeric – Is It a Superspice?

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Many health claims are found on the Internet for turmeric, a spice from the turmeric root found in India and Southeast Asia.  It is valued for its dark yellow color and distinctive flavor.  For thousands of years it has been used for medicinal, religious and culinary applications.

It was once known as “Indian saffron” and used to substitute for the expensive spice saffron. It is most often used in cooking in Indian food as an important part of curry.  It is found in its powdered form or available as a supplement.

As for the claims of its health benefits, here are a few found on the Internet; there are many others.

  • It is a natural antiseptic and antibacterial agent, useful in disinfecting cuts and burns.
  • May prevent melanoma and cause existing melanoma cells to commit suicide.
  • Reduces the risk of childhood leukemia.
  • Is a natural liver detoxifier.
  • May prevent and slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease by removing amyloyd plaque buildup in the brain.
  • It is a potent natural anti-inflammatory that works as well as many anti-inflammatory drugs but without the side effects.
  • May aid in fat metabolism and help in weight management.
  • Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, it is a natural treatment for arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis..
  •  Has been shown to stop the growth of new blood vessels in tumors.

Sounds too good to be true – but what does the research actually say?  As usual with health claims it’s so important to know what claims have some scientific basis or just simply pseudoscience.

First of all, it is high in iron, manganese, vitamin B6, potassium.

Most research has focused on compounds in turmeric called curcuminoids and, more specifically, curcumin, which gives turmeric its orange-yellow color and is the predominant curcuminoid in turmeric, its active ingredient.

Arthritis Treatment

Turmeric has been used as an arthritis treatment in India.  It appears to have anti-inflammatory properties at least as well as the popular NSAID, ibuprofen.  In a study on osteoarthritis of the knee in 2011, two groups were randomized and received either 800 mg.  Ibuprofen/day or 2 gm/day of turmeric for 6 weeks.  Both groups had similar improvement in symptoms and no difference in side effects.  However, the turmeric treatment may not cause the often harmful effects on the stomach as is seen in ibuprofen treatment. The anti-inflammatory action may block  the same pathways of inflammation as the anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) do,  like Celebrex® (celecoxib) and Motrin® (ibuprofen)

Good for the Gut?

 A study of 116 people found that one group was given 500 mg of turmeric four times a day for seven days compared to a placebo for gastrointestinal symptoms of indigestion.  Eighty-seven percent of the people who took turmeric reported improvement compared to 53% of the placebo group.
In another double blind study, 89 people with ulcerative colitis either were given one gram of curcumin two times a day or a placebo for six months.  The curcumin group had more remissions than the placebo group.
Claims that turmeric can help prevent gastric or duodenal ulcers do not seem to hold up since the results are mixed – two studies found no benefit but a third reported improved symptoms.  Additionally, while some animal research suggests that turmeric might help prevent ulcers, other animal research suggests that turmeric might increase the risk of ulcers.

Weak Cancer Claims
Curcumin has been shown to suppress proliferation of a wide variety of cancer cell types in the laboratory. However, results of a small study of patients (given 8 grams of curcumin daily) with pancreatic cancer showed biological activity in only about 10% of patients.

There is limited research and/or weak evidence on whether curcumin can increase insulin levels in diabetics and curcumin in a preliminary study did not improve mental functioning when compared to a placebo in Alzheimer’s disease patients.

A couple of cautions – It also appears to stimulate the gallbladder, so people with gallbladder disease should not take it without a doctor’s supervision.  Turmeric may increase the risk of bleeding or potentiate the effects of warfarin or other blood thinning therapies.

Most of the claims simply do not hold up with sound scientific support, are animal studies, or cell culture studies,  but additional clinical studies of turmeric and curcumin with a wide variety of diseases are ongoing and should shed some light on this much-talked about spice.

Until then, turmeric can be enjoyed for its flavor and color-enhancing properties.  Making the most of it can simply be to add a pinch to chicken or egg salad.  Its potent flavor perks up bland foods such as rice or other whole grains.  Use it in vegetable stir-fries, soups, and sauces to boost antioxidant levels.  Mix with cumin and coriander that are other antioxidant-rich spices.


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One thought on “Turmeric – Is It a Superspice?

  1. Thanks for posting this. This information really helps people that are suffering on arthritis.


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