Turmeric: Is This 'Miracle Food' the Real Deal? Here's What the Research Says

STACK investigate the many purported health and other benefits of turmeric.

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past three months, you've probably heard about turmeric. If not, here's a quick rundown: Turmeric is a plant in the ginger family that's native to southwest India. Its root can be boiled, ground and baked to produce an orangish-yellowish powder. This powder, often referred to as ground turmeric or turmeric powder, has been a staple of Indian and Pakistani cuisine for thousands of years. Now, many Americans are also embracing it. So, why are we suddenly obsessed with this ancient spice?

Because it's being labeled across the internet as an incredibly powerful "superfood." Google "turmeric health benefits" and you'll find thousands of articles claiming turmeric can do everything under the sun. If you believe everything you read, turmeric can supposedly:

  • whiten teeth
  • reduce wrinkles
  • relieve pain
  • thicken hair
  • treat and prevent multiple forms of cancer
  • prevent Alzheimer's
  • increase weight loss
  • treat depression
  • improve sleep
  • pretty much anything else you could ever want

Pretty crazy, right? Well, don't go out and buy drums of turmeric quite yet. It's not uncommon for the benefits of trendy foods to get exaggerated, only to fade from the limelight when people realize those benefits are mostly hot air. That's why STACK dove into the research to see if turmeric really deserves to be the next big thing in nutrition.

The Secret Ingredient

Turmeric Powder

Before we address the research, let's check out the basic nutritional profile of ground turmeric. One tablespoon contains 24 calories, .7 grams of fat, 1.4 grams of fiber and .5 grams of protein. In terms of the major vitamins and minerals, it contains a solid amount of iron but not much else. So the basic nutritional facts are pretty pedestrian. If that's the case, why is turmeric getting so much hype?

The answers lies in curcumin, a powerful antioxidant found almost exclusively in turmeric. Much of the research into turmeric's health benefits focus on its curcumin content. When it comes to the purported benefits of turmeric, curcumin is key.

How much curcumin is in ground turmeric?

According to a 2006 study published in the journal Nutrition and Cancer, pure turmeric powder averages 3.14% curcumin by weight. So if you eat 100 grams of pure turmeric powder, you will consume about 3.14 grams of curcumin. A tablespoon of turmeric powder measures 17 grams, containing roughly .57 grams (or 570 mg) of curcumin. That's a solid amount, but downing tablespoons of ground turmeric powder can be unpleasant—which is why many people take turmeric in the form of a capsule supplement.

Now that we know about the importance of curcumin, let's check out the research.

Can Turmeric Help Reduce Inflammation?

Ground Turmeric

Inflammation is the body's natural response to injury, infection or disease. Its purpose is to protect the body and let it heal. But chronic inflammation can become a health risk. Many common conditions—such as asthma and arthritis—are classified as "inflammatory," and inflammation can contribute to more life-threatening diseases like cancer and cardiovascular disease. So if turmeric could help reduce inflammation, that would be an awesome benefit. But is it true?

RELATED: Three Powerful Health Benefits of Turmeric

The research says yes. Examine, an independent site that collates scientific research and disseminates information on supplementation and nutrition, points to five separate studies regarding curcumin's effects on inflammation before concluding that "there appears to be a decrease in disease states or conditions characterized by inflammation associated with curcumin ingestion" and that curcumin "does not appear to be too discriminatory in which inflammatory states it benefits."

The average age of the subjects varied widely among the studies, and curcumin was found to reduce inflammation related to a wide variety of conditions, including osteoarthritis, diabetic nephropathy and lichen planus (a skin disease).

Can Turmeric Change Body Composition?

Turmeric

Millions of Americans are overweight. And millions of Americans desire to change their bodies for the better. So the promise that turmeric can potentially aid in fat loss is certainly appealing. But does the research back it up?

Not quite. There currently isn't enough data to support the idea that turmeric has a significant effect on body composition. A 2009 animal study found that dietary curcumin could potentially inhibit the spread of fat tissue, but not  enough high-quality research is yet available to reach a conclusion on this topic.

Can Turmeric Be Used as a Pain Reliever?

Turmeric

One of turmeric's most interesting reported benefits is pain relief. Instead of popping a Tylenol, you could just down some turmeric. It's intriguing, sure. But is it true?

It looks likely. There haven't been a ton of studies on turmeric's role as a pain reliever, but what's available is encouraging. Examine writes, "there appear to be decreases in pain associated with curcumin at higher doses (400-500 mg) which extend to post-operative, arthritic and general pain symptoms. This does seem comparable to 2g of acetaminophen in potency."

Acetaminophen is the major active ingredient in Tylenol and many generic pain relievers, so that's a pretty impressive result.

Can Turmeric Help Battle or Even Prevent Forms of Cancer?

Turmeric

Perhaps the most intriguing purported benefit of turmeric is its ability to battle cancer. It sounds too good to be true, but a growing amount of research suggests that curcumin can help fight this all-too-common disease.

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, "there has been a great deal of research on turmeric's anti-cancer properties, but results are still very preliminary. Evidence from test tube and animal studies suggests that curcumin may help prevent or treat several types of cancers, including prostate, breast, skin, and colon cancer. Tumeric's preventive effects may relate to its antioxidant properties, which protect cells from damage. More research is needed."

Yes, more research is needed, but early results are encouraging regarding curcumin's role in battling cancer.

Can Turmeric Help Prevent Heart Disease?

Turmeric

According to the CDC, one in every four deaths in the United States can be attributed to heart disease. Could turmeric help curb this massive public health issue?

RELATED: Heart-Healthy Foods for Athletes

It's too early to tell. Some animal studies have found that curcumin could help improve your cholesterol profile and thus reduce your risk of blocked arteries (which lead to heart attacks and stroke), but the same results have not yet been achieved in human studies. Turmeric could potentially help prevent heart disease, or it could have no discernible effect—we'll just have to wait for more research.

Can Turmeric Help Treat Depression?

Turmeric

According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, depression affects nearly 15 million Americans in any given year. Could turmeric help boost the mood of those suffering with depression?

Research has been sparse but encouraging. One study found that taking 500 mg of curcumin twice a day (roughly equivalent to two tablespoons of pure powdered turmeric) helped depressed subjects reduce their symptoms as well as Fluoxetine, a popular anti-depressant medication frequently marketed under the name "Prozac." However, no placebo group was used for comparison in the study.

Can Turmeric Make Me More Attractive?

Ground Turmeric

Turmeric's supposed benefits also include beautification: whiter teeth, clearer skin and thicker hair. They all sound great, but the only one supported by research is clearer skin.

RELATED: Just a Spoonful a Day of These 5 Foods Can Boost Your Health

Several studies have found that ground turmeric helps protect the skin from UV rays, reduce the appearance of dark spots, reduce acne, prevent wrinkles and help heal wounds. So the idea that turmeric can help improve the health and appearance of your skin certainly sounds valid.

However, claims like whiter teeth and thicker hair aren't backed by the same amount of research. It's possible that turmeric (more specifically, curcumin) could help confer those benefits, but the research is extremely limited at this point in time.

The Verdict

Turmeric

It's not unusual for the benefits of hip, trendy foods to get totally overblown. However, in the case of turmeric, a solid amount of research backs up many of its purported health benefits. More research is needed before concrete conclusions are reached, but even in areas where the research has been sparse—such as pain relief—early results have been encouraging. You shouldn't toss out the contents of your medicine cabinet in favor of turmeric, but it really does seem likely to have impressive capabilities.

There has yet to be a consensus on the best way to ingest turmeric and/or curcumin. The human body has been found capable of consuming 8 grams of curcumin a day without adverse affects, so overdosing shouldn't be a major concern. Whether you take it as a supplement or use it to spice up your food, you should strive to combine turmeric with a source of fat and/or black pepper. These greatly increase the absorption rate of curcumin, and many turmeric or curcumin supplements contain them.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: DIET | NUTRITION | FOODS | HEALTH | HEART | INFLAMMATION | SUPPLEMENT