Date of the last update: 18.04.2023
Despite the strong connection between turmeric and curcumin, they are not synonymous, and if we wish to gain the best of their benefits, it’s important to understand the differences between the two, their comparative benefits, and the best ways to consume them to boost your health and well-being.
Table of contents:
- Turmeric and Curcumin: Similarities, Differences, and Benefits
- Turmeric Root vs. Curcumin Extract: Which to Choose, and how to Consume
- The Possible Side Effects of Turmeric and Curcumin
You can read this article in 4 minutes.
Most of us know of turmeric as a spice, which originates in Asia, and is a key ingredient in many curry mixes, as well as being a core ingredient in Ayurvedic diets. Turmeric comes from the root of the curcuma longa, a flowering plant of the ginger family. Turmeric is made up of a number of compounds, the most active of which are its three curcuminoidsis: first, the carotenoid compound curcumin (which we will focus in this article), demethoxycurcumin and bisdemethoxycurcumin. As well as its flavour, people consume turmeric for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities, and although this correlation is not well proven, some people even use this spice as part of an anti-cancer diet.
While some people use the terms ‘turmeric’ and ‘curcumin’ interchangeably, as mentioned above, curcumin is a unique substance found in turmeric, believed to be the origin of turmeric’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities, as well as the source of its bright yellow colour (be extra careful when handling turmeric – it’s potentially the hardest stain to remove from both clothes and surfaces!). Several studies suggest that curcumin can support the treatment of different forms of arthritis, as well as reduce inflammation-based pain. While there are other medicinal compounds in turmeric, curcumin is the best known, and for this reason it is frequently extracted from turmeric and sold independently as a food supplement.
Beyond reducing inflammation, curcumin is believed to help address a number of other ailments. Although a significant lack of research makes it difficult to assert these health associations as facts, curcumin shows signs of helping to detoxify the body; mitigate and alleviate stomach, digestive and liver problems; lessen the symptoms of depression and HIV; and even reduce the growth of tumours and the spread of colon cancer cells. However, this is an extensive list for one compound, and due to the lack of scientific studies and consensus, it is essential that patients use curcumin as a supplement to the medical treatment of any of these diseases.
Turmeric has been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years, and it can be consumed in a variety of ways. Turmeric is most commonly-found as a ground spice, which is extracted by drying and grinding the root. On the other hand, the curcumin food supplement is extracted from ground turmeric, and sold as capsules in many health stores.
So, which is better – consuming turmeric as a whole, or opting for curcumin extracts? There are people who argue in favour of each option. Within the turmeric root or powder, curcumin makes up only 3% of turmeric’s weight, whilst curcumin extract contains up to 95% pure curcumin. Many people choose this option, believing that they will receive more of curcumin’s anti-inflammatory benefits by consuming this compound in isolation. However, other studies argue that the other curcuminoids in the turmeric root and powder also have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities, and that turmeric’s non-curcominoid compounds have additional benefits such as antifungal effects. With this second mindset, taking curcumin extracts deprives consumers of the other benefits that turmeric may offer as a whole. Many people also argue that consuming whole foods allow us to absorb their beneficial nutrients more effectively, meaning that even though the concentration of curcumin is lower in turmeric’s root and powder, it is possible that we absorb it better when consumed in combination with the rest of turmeric’s compounds. Once again, a lack of scientific research means that this decision remains contested, and it is therefore up to the personal preference of each consumer.
Supplements are simple to take, but so is integrating turmeric into your diet. Turmeric is most commonly bought and consumed as a dry powder, but many health food stores also offer the fresh root. Boost your intake of all turmeric’s nutrients by increasing your consumption of warming curries, and perhaps add extra turmeric to the mix. Or, try adding turmeric to home-made sauces, or to the water that you use to cook rice and other grains! Fresh turmeric root can also be infused in hot water, just is ginger might.
Whichever option you choose, bear in mind that the nutrients in turmeric and curcumin are best absorbed when combined with oils or fats. Curry is commonly prepared using frying oils, and the increasingly popular ‘golden latte’ that combines turmeric and other spices with milk also offers this combination. It is also believed that the piperine compound in black pepper helps the absorption of turmeric and curcumin. Luckily, spice mixes containing turmeric tend to also include black pepper.
While this natural ingredient is usually consumed liberally in its countries of origin and beyond, some of the few existing studies have found potential negative side effects, which are important to bear in mind.
If consumed in high quantities, turmeric can cause nausea and diarrhoea. People who suffer from gallstones, kidney disease, bleeding disorders, diabetes or immunity diseases are recommended to avoid consuming turmeric and its compounds. There have also been signs that turmeric and curcumin can interfere with some medications, including aspirin, NSAID painkillers, blood pressure treatments, diabetes medications, and statins. Due to the lack of evidence surrounding turmeric and curcumin’s health benefits and potential interactions, pregnant women are also recommended to avoid these substances, unless recommended by a doctor. In conclusion, if you think turmeric or curcumin supplements may help you address health issues, it is recommendable to consult a health profession first.
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Turmeric has been a go-to anti-inflammatory and antioxidant for thousands of years, first in India and later across South-East Asia. The health benefits identified by initial studies may mean that its increasing consumption across the world may be of great benefit to us all. As discussed in this article, we have two options: integrating turmeric root and powder directly into our diet, or opting for curcumin supplements for this compound’s anti-inflammatory benefits. The pros and cons of isolating curcumin vs accessing the variety of turmeric’s healthy compounds have been compared, and as with all food debates, the choice you make is up to the consumer’s priorities and preferences!
Bhogal, R (2019). ‘The Difference Between Turmeric and Curcumin’. Da Vinci Laboratories
Just Vitamins (n/d) ‘What’s the difference between Turmeric and Curcumin?’ Just Vitamins.
Morgan, R. (2021) ‘Turmeric (Curcumin)’. Nourish by WebMD.