Turmeric is a spice commonly found in Southeast Asian cuisine that bestows a gorgeous yellow colour to its dishes. In addition to lending this saffron-like colouring to food, turmeric has also long been used in religious ceremonies and traditional medicines.Prasad S, Aggarwal BB. Chapter 13: Turmeric, the Golden Spice. Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. 2nd edn. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis. 2011. In Southeast Asia as early as 250BC, for instance, turmeric is recorded as being a key component in medicines to relieve symptoms of food poisoning.Prasad S, Aggarwal BB. Chapter 13: Turmeric, the Golden Spice. Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. 2nd edn. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis. 2011. And turmeric has historically been used in the treatment of an abundance of ailments from rheumatoid arthritis to conjunctivitis.Dixit VP, Jain P, Joshi SC. Hypolipidaemic effects of Curcuma longa Linn., and Nardostachys jatamansi DC, in triton-induced hyperlipidaemic rats. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. 1988;32:299-304. In recent years, turmeric has come to the attention of the modern mainstream community. A number of studies are beginning to form a scientific foundation for the functional use of the spice, and Google searches for turmeric increased 56% from 2015 to 2016.
Turmeric: are the health benefits real?
Turmeric has been touted as having a number of beneficial biological properties ranging from being anti-inflammatory to acting as a powerful antioxidant. Although these claims might sound a little far-fetched – it is just a yellow spice after all – there is good evidence to support them. The flavonoid curcumin is said to be the part of turmeric that gives the spice its characteristic colour and its health benefits. Curcumin’s role as an antioxidant was shown in a study where healthy, middle-aged volunteers who took 80mg of curcumin per day displayed reduced oxidative stress. These results should prompt further investigation as reduced levels of oxidative stress have been linked to better outcomes in diseases such as cardiovascular disorders, diabetes and dementia. In another study, Singaporeans who ate more curry containing turmeric were found to have broader measures of cognitive ability. While results like these need to be taken with a grain of salt (as outside variables could be implicated in the results), they do illustrate that curcumin could possess a host of beneficial properties especially related to brain function. An additional study showed improvement in participants’ working memory after taking curcumin capsules. The improvement was localised to 1-3 hours after taking the capsules so the benefits were only short lived. But the experimental group also displayed less fatigue than the placebo group at the end of the assessment. Studies such as these have prompted some in the modern medical community to examine turmeric’s possible uses as a functional food.
Functional foods: more than just the latest trend?
Functional foods are defined as foods that deliver more or extra benefits than just their basic nutritional value. The flavanoid curcumin is the main reason turmeric is considered a functional food. However, while the scientific evidence seems to suggest turmeric’s health benefits are real, it is important to note a couple of caveats. First, turmeric as a source of curcumin has low bioavailability, which means that under normal circumstances the gut is unable to absorb very much of the flavonoid into the body. To account for this, some labs have developed a way to bind the curcumin to lipid molecules to allow the ready passage of curcumin through bodily tissues. Second, while turmeric (like other so-called functional foods) may be able to give a specific hit of a desired nutrient, they by no means are able to replace the benefits of a balanced and varied diet. Third, research into turmeric’s health benefits is relatively new, and while in-roads are being made into establishing turmeric’s effectiveness in improving working memory as illustrated in the study above, further research is needed.
In summary, functional foods have become increasingly popular in the last decade as we continue to search for a nutritional ‘magic bullet’. These foods can be beneficial, for instance, if an individual is lacking a specific nutrient. They are not a cure-all but they are an interesting avenue in the dietary prevention and management of some diseases and health conditions.
Should we switch to turmeric lattes?
The popularity of turmeric as something more than a yellow spice has even filtered into the café scene with its addition in trendy pressed juices, grain bowls and even frothed milk. The latter, commonly referred to as a ‘golden latte’, is promoted as an alternative to caffeinated drinks and particularly popular in many health food cafés. However, is sipping on a golden latte or turmeric-infused pressed juice really going to be that beneficial for your health? In order to access any benefits using kitchen grade turmeric you’d need to consume approximately 5g per day, and as turmeric lattes usually only contain around 2g, you’d have to have two and a bit lattes before meeting the specified beneficial amount.
With a number of issues arising from the high incidence of chronic diseases and our ageing population, looking to new interventions to slow or treat disease symptoms, cognitive decline and other age-related issues is incredibly vital. Exploring the use of potential beneficial nutrients like curcumin in turmeric will continue to improve our foundation of knowledge. So should we begin to focus more on the effects of functional foods like turmeric in the prevention and treatment of disease? Let us know what you think in the comments below.
References [ + ]
|1.||⇪ab||Prasad S, Aggarwal BB. Chapter 13: Turmeric, the Golden Spice. Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. 2nd edn. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis. 2011.|
|2.||⇪||Dixit VP, Jain P, Joshi SC. Hypolipidaemic effects of Curcuma longa Linn., and Nardostachys jatamansi DC, in triton-induced hyperlipidaemic rats. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. 1988;32:299-304.|