Turmeric. Is. Everywhere.
It’s the latte flavour of the moment - matcha is so 2016 and charcoal hasn’t quite hit the mainstream yet - with even Starbucks launching its own version of the spicy drink last autumn.
Health brands and eateries have all jumped on the bandwagon: store shelves are brimming with turmeric teas, capsules, nuts, ghee and more, and eateries are adding the spice to everything from juice shots to cocktails.
Turmeric has been lauded as “the new kale” with celebrities and health “experts” claiming it can improve your memory, make your skin glow and boost your mood.
But what many people don’t realise is that the purported health benefits of the spice have been blown far out of proportion.
Sydney-based epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz believes turmeric is the “perfect health fad.”
“It’s a traditional medicine, it’s slightly mystical because it comes from the east, it even tastes a bit medicinal,” he explained to The Independent. “The initial studies that were done on it were mostly positive, lending an air of scientific credibility as well, and the fact that we’ve researched it for a decade and found very few benefits only makes it seem controversial and cool.
“Basically, it ticks every box for a nonsense health fad except for the ‘orifice test’, and honestly I wouldn’t be surprised if someone’s using turmeric enemas somewhere.”
The trouble is that the studies that have resulted in people worshipping turmeric have actually mainly been carried out on curcumin, a compound found in the spice.
Curcumin is good for you, there’s no denying that.
“Turmeric contains curcumin which has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties,” specialist dietitian Nichola Ludlam-Raine explained to The Independent.
And Harley Street Nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert adds: “Studies where turmeric was consumed have found that curcumin can improve memory in patients with Alzheimer's disease.”
But turmeric is actually only about three per cent curcumin, so you’re not getting very much of it by sprinkling some into a latte.
What’s more, curcumin is very hard for our bodies to absorb - we’re only able to use about 25 per cent of what is consumed.
“There may be benefits of taking large amounts of curcumin, but to do so you have to eat thousands of curries worth of turmeric, making it something of an ineffective treatment,” Meyerowitz-Katz wrote.
Lambert agrees that consuming enough turmeric to reap the benefits would be a challenge: “It would be very difficult to reach these levels just using the turmeric spice in cooking, although it is definitely a welcome addition to anyone’s diet.”
With this in mind, it seems we’re being duped into thinking adding turmeric to a stir-fry or sipping an expensive yellow latte will suddenly give us a magic health boost, and it simply isn’t the case.
Meyerowitz-Katz believes it’s problematic that the health benefits of the spice have been overstated: “While turmeric in and of itself is mostly well-tolerated and rarely causes side-effects, it has now been hyped as a remedy for everything from IBS to cancer.
“I have personally met people who have given up conventional treatment - including for serious disease like cancer - in favour of supplements like these. Some of them died. In and of itself, turmeric is not a problem, but when combined with a huge amount of hype, it can be deadly.”
When health benefits of certain foods are overhyped, it can lead to problems and disappointment when a supposed superfood doesn’t deliver the results people have been promised.
Does that mean it’s time to throw out the turmeric then? Not necessarily, but only eat it if you actually like the taste, rather than because you’re wishing for a magic health pill.
“I would say to use turmeric for what it is; as a flavour enhancer rather than for its health properties (stick to vegetables for that!),” Ludlam-Raine says. “It’s an excellent spice to flavour your food as it’s low in sodium and calories, and sugar-free too.”