Turmeric & Curcumin – What Are They?
Turmeric is the herb from which the nutritional supplement curcumin is derived. Turmeric is also the spice used to make curry powder. While taking curcumin is the easiest way to get the health benefits of turmeric, this pungent herb has proven benefits of its own¹.
What Turmeric Isn't
To understand how to get the full health benefits of turmeric, it's important to understand what turmeric isn't. Turmeric isn't just curcumin². About 2% of turmeric is curcumin, but the spice contains other antioxidants as well as about 25% volatile oil. The volatile oil is turmeric's most important flavor component.
Turmeric also isn't synonymous with curry powder. Most curries contain turmeric, but all curries contain other herbs and spices as well. A cup of curry powder may contain just a couple of tablespoons of turmeric.
And turmeric is not the same as red pepper, Szechuan pepper, black pepper, or other hot and pungent spices. To get the health benefits of turmeric, you really need to be sure you are using a substantial amount of the spice, and you are getting the right spice. But as little as 1 teaspoon (3 or 4 grams) of turmeric a day in your food is enough.
What Turmeric Offers That Curcumin Doesn't
Turmeric is the natural source of the curcuminoids. This is a group of chemicals that includes curcumin as well as two closely related chemicals called demethoxycurcumin and bis-demethoxycurcumin.
All three compounds are antioxidants. Curcumin is the “strongest” antioxidant, but the other two of the three major antioxidants in curcumin seem to have different roles in fighting cancer. The other two ingredients also fight inflammation and irritation through chemical pathways that are not affected by curcumin. Curcumin by itself is good, but curcumin with its natural co-factors is better.
When To Eat Turmeric, and When to Take Curcumin
The broad range of natural chemicals in turmeric make it an excellent addition to the diet for preventive nutrition. In the doses of turmeric you can get from eating curry every, like curcumin supplements, protects cholesterol from the changes that transform it into artery-clogging plaques. Turmeric slows down the rate at which carbohydrates break down into sugar. It helps the linings of the arteries generate the chemical nitric oxide (NO) to stay open and keep blood pressure down. Its combination of beneficial plant chemicals fights inflammation but it also powers white blood cells to fight infection.
Just a teaspoon of turmeric every day in your food, typically mixed with other herbs and spices to make curry, is enough to get all these benefits that keep you healthy, giving you about 100 mg of curcumin per day in the process.
There are two problems with getting the health benefits of turmeric from food rather than from supplements. One is that you would need to eat curry every day. The other is that if you want to use curcumin to help your body fight a disease, you'll need a lot more curcumin than the 100 mg a day it is possible to obtain by eating curries.
Up to 12,000 mg per day, depending on the condition, may be helpful and side-effect free. It is only possible to get that amount of curcumin by taking a supplement. But if you aren't fighting a disease condition, either a low dose of curcumin supplements (up to 500 mg per day) or regular consumption of curry powder made with turmeric is enough to help you stay healthy.
What is Curcumin?
The standard answer to the question of what curcumin is usually runs something like this: Curcumin is the yellow antioxidant pigment found in the herb turmeric.
Or maybe you would see something on the lines of curcumin is a “cure-cumin” that is a concentrated form of the best-known antioxidant in curry powder.
But then the question is, what is turmeric? Is turmeric the same thing as curry powder? And why do so many supplements offer curcumin and turmeric mixed together?
The answer is that curcumin is the best-known and most completely researched healing component of the turmeric root. Curcumin is only one of the beneficial chemicals in turmeric, but curcumin supplements offer vastly more curcumin than is available from the unprocessed herb or from curry powder. Using curcumin effectively is easier with some knowledge of the plant from which it is derived, and how the plant differs from curry powder, and how both differ from curcumin supplements.
Turmeric, Curry, and Curcumin
Turmeric is a plant in the ginger family. Native to the tropics, turmeric is aromatic like ginger but hotter and spicier. Also like ginger, turmeric is taken from the root (actually the rhizome) of the plant, which is peeled with a knife or the back of a spoon before the herb is used fresh. Outside of the tropical reaches of India and Southeastern Asia, however, turmeric is usually dried and powdered before it is used in making curries.
There are at least two different kinds of turmeric in the spice trade. The turmeric plant grows from a “bulb” that sends out leafy green shoots above the ground and cylindrical rhizomes beneath the surface of the soil. The central bulb can be harvested for a herb called Curcuma tuberosa, and the much more commonly used rhizomes are called Curcuma longa. The names aren't italicized when they refer to spices, and the names aren't the same as the italicized botanical name for the turmeric plant, Curcuma longa. Both kinds of turmeric spice have approximately the same antioxidant power.
Curry powder contains turmeric and numerous other spices. It is important to understand that 90% or more of what is in curry powder isn't turmeric, and nearly 99.9% of what is in curry powder isn't curcumin. There is curcumin in turmeric and there is turmeric in curry powder, but the amount of curcumin is highest in supplements.
Curcumin's Free Radical Fighting Power
The reason people who are in the know about natural health care about curcumin is that it has remarkable free-radical fighting power. Along with vitamin E and lipoic acid, curcumin is one of the best known antioxidants. That means it neutralizes chemicals released when oxygen is used inside a cell that can cause damage to DNA resulting in deficiencies of the enzymes the body makes.
All that antioxidant power is fragile. The antioxidant curcumin will react with oxygen in the atmosphere. That is why the bright orange color of dried, ground turmeric, due to its curcumin content, fades if the ground spice is exposed to the air. The curcumin in the curry powder uses up its antioxidant power as it is exposed to the air, heat, or light.
If you plan to use turmeric to get part of your antioxidants, you need to know that turmeric needs to be used relatively fresh (in the first six months after it is purchased) for its maximum health benefits. Curcumin in a capsule, however, is shelf-stable if the bottle is stored in a cool, dry place for up to 3 years.
It's a Lot Easier to Get Your Curcumin from a Supplement than from Curry or Even Turmeric
It's much easier to get the antioxidant benefits of curcumin from supplements than from the culinary herb.
Even though fresh turmeric root contains up to about 3% curcumin (Dr. Jim Duke of the US Department of Agriculture found a few specimens that contained up to 3.88% curcumin), you would have to eat a lot of turmeric to get your daily dose of curcumin. If you could eat fresh turmeric root, you would need about 18 grams (4 heaping tablespoons) to get 500 mg of curcumin.
Or if you wanted to get the kind of curcumin dosage successfully used in cancer trials, about 10,000 mg a day, you would need 360 grams of turmeric, over 3/ 4 of a pound of turmeric mixed into a giant pot of curry sauce, just to get the curcumin you need.
Well, to be fair, those figures only hold if you were to eat your curry cold. Eating curry piping hot makes the relatively low concentration of curcumin it contains more absorbable.
Cooking turmeric makes the curcumin it contains much more easily absorbed by the body. In fact, cooking turmeric powder into curry makes it about 3 times more readily absorbed into the bloodstream. (This effect is lost if the curry is eaten cold.) This might bring the required quantities of turmeric down to about 1-1/2 tablespoons a day for general health maintenance.
But a curcumin supplement contains 20 to 30 times more curcumin than the equivalent weight of turmeric and 200 to 500 times more curcumin that an equivalent weight of curry. It's a lot easier to get your antioxidant curcumin by taking supplements than by eating curry. However, you may want to eat some curry occasionally because curcumin is not the only beneficial chemical that turmeric contains, unless you take a supplement that offers curcumin and turmeric together.
Why Supplement Makers Offer Curcumin and Turmeric Together
There have been over 5,000 studies of the health benefits of curcumin. There have been dozens of clinical trials of curcumin health benefits, including a study to determine the optimal dosing of curcumin for various disease conditions. One of the totally unexpected results of clinical research has been that the antioxidant effects of turmeric can be measured even when the concentration of curcumin in the bloodstream cannot.
From this, scientists know that curcumin is not the only active ingredient in the herb. There are at least two others. They are bis-demethoxycurcumin and demethoxycurcumin. These two chemicals probably have their own not-yet-discovered health applications, but right now supplement makers just want to make sure you get them by including turmeric powder along with concentrated curcumin.
So Do I Have to Buy a Brand that Contains Both Turmeric and Curcumin?
Curcumin by itself, of course, is also effective. Until recently, most scientific studies and clinical trials of turmeric-derived herbal medicines only used curcumin, since it is easy to standardize and the simplicity of a single ingredient makes it easier to test. But if you find that a brand that contains curcumin only is what fits your budget, just try to eat curry a couple times a week to get a fuller range of plant chemicals that enhance the healing power of curcumin.
- Tayyem RF, Heath DD, Al-Delaimy WK, Rock CL.Curcumin content of turmeric and curry powders. Nutr Cancer. 2006;55(2):126-31.
- Wargovich MJ, Woods C, Hollis DM, Zander ME. Herbals, cancer prevention and health. J Nutr. 2001 Nov;131(11 Suppl):3034S-6S. Review.