Turmeric – the superfood that may not be quite so super

For my first post, I thought I’d stick to what I know and talk about a chemical. Specifically: curcumin.

curcumin_structure

Curcumin is one of the active compounds in turmeric, a spice which has been used for centuries in curries and is also a well-known herbal medicine. Even a quick Google for turmeric brings up hundreds of pages listing the diseases which can be treated or prevented by ingesting this humble spice. This includes heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and of course, cancer (what magical wonder drug wouldn’t cure cancer??)

I am not a health nut or particularly interested in homeopathic medicines or supplements, but even I have heard in passing conversation how beneficial turmeric is!

The news that caught my eye over the last couple of days was that turmeric might actually have no health benefits whatsoever, completely going against the hundreds of studies into its incredible properties as a medicine. This intrigued me, so I decided to do a bit of research into the subject.

After wading through the pages and lists of turmeric’s benefits, the first thing that struck me was that it does seem to have been extensively studied – even the most obscure Home Remedies website has a link to a published research article that seems to back up their claims. Almost all of the sites identify curcumin as the active ingredient, and most recognise that you might have to take it directly as opposed to eating more turmeric – there is not very much curcumin in turmeric so it is more effective as an extract.

The more I read through these articles, and the scientific studies that backed them up, the more curcumin seemed to genuinely be a miracle drug. They did clinical studies! They tested it alongside other similar drugs! The scientists used radioactive band imaging and fluorescence and electrophoretic mobility shift assays and blah blah science words!

So it sounds pretty clever. Foolproof even. But what we must remember is that results can be wrong, and even writing a peer-reviewed article in a highly respected scientific journal doesn’t mean your research is correct, it just means it makes a lot of sense and your method is sound.

Most of the studies took place in-vitro (outside of the body in a lab somewhere). So curcumin may not be effective inside the body, an idea that is reinforced by studies that show how quickly it passes through the body, the likely possibility that it gets changed into a different chemical by the body, and how poorly it is absorbed when you eat it.

The new research that has been published shows that curcumin is a PAIN*.

*Pan Assay Interference Compound

Which means that it is also known as a false hitter, a false positive, a Promiscuous Compound (sexy). In other words, curcumin will make your results look great but it actually does not have the effect or properties you were hoping to find.

So the scientists weren’t wrong! In the lab, curcumin LOOKS like it is a miracle drug that cures cancer because it gives you a very positive result!

It’s just that the latest research says that unfortunately it is a false result. Did you know that chemicals are more likely to show false biological activity when they are strongly coloured dyes? And guess which chemical has a very strong yellow colour? Our promiscuous friend curcumin.

So even if curcumin has been described by the paper as ‘an unstable, reactive, nonbioavailable compound and a highly improbable lead’ – basically it’s a crap drug – do not lose hope! We might begin to explore chemical variations on curcumin, as it does show some promising features. And now you can stop wasting your money on concentrated turmeric/curcumin capsules. You’re welcome.

 

 

Just for reference, here is the most recent published research:

http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.jmedchem.6b00975

 

 

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8 thoughts on “Turmeric – the superfood that may not be quite so super

  1. Interesting, and slightly disappointing. I like cooking with turmeric, and I liked thinking it was super healthy for me. But this makes a great example of how laboratory results don’t always reflect what happens in the real world.

    Like

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