New directions

I started this blog mostly to have a record of progress on the farm, but I’ve posted so seldom that it hasn’t served that purpose. So I’m going to shift direction and post mainly about something else, specifically turmeric.

Because I like it. Because I’ve used it for years and I know how good it is for you. And because I hate the way it’s being misrepresented and advertised online, and how people are being persuaded to spend good money in a way that doesn’t provide any benefit to them. I will not sell any turmeric product on this site, and I will not make any claims that can’t be backed up with science or personal experience. So you can believe what you read here.

What’s turmeric, you ask?
For many people, it’s one of the ingredients in curry powder. ┬áIn fact, until recently, many people equated the two, and thought of turmeric only in terms of curry. But turmeric is much more than just a spice. It’s been used as a dye, as a skin treatment (and decoration), as part of the daily diet of millions of people and as a pharmaceutical. You can hardly surf the net nowadays without seeing multiple articles about it, from business, health and general interest sites of all kinds.

That’s good, isn’t it?
Unfortunately, many of those articles are guilty of perpetuating misconceptions, or worse, of overblown hype. Vague claims abound, from statements that “You’ll never get cancer!” to “Turmeric replaces hundreds of medications!” and more. Many of the articles are little more than promos for the writer’s own product. As a result, turmeric is often used in a way that provides little benefit and could even do some harm. So I’m going to do my best to present a medically accurate and well-researched explanation of what turmeric is (and is not) and how to use it most effectively.

So…what is turmeric, then?
Essentially, it is a spice. That’s why it’s in curry powder, after all. It’s used to flavor curries, along with several other spices. It’s widely used in many other Indian dishes as well, not just curries. It’s been used for thousands of years in India and other parts of Asia, and its medical uses have been known for almost as long as its dietary and decorative ones. There is some evidence that it was used originally as a dye, because of its bright yellow color (similar to the far more expensive saffron). In fact, it’s been called the “poor man’s saffron.” But its value as a spice and as a medicinal herb was known from a long way back.

Turmeric’s therapeutic properties have been documented in Ayurveda writings since very early times–many centuries, at least. And while the concepts of Ayurveda seem quaint and outdated to Western minds, it represented the best understanding that those early people had of disease processes and the herbs that affected them. In some cases, as in early herbal medicine in the Western world, that understanding was a very good one, regardless of its expression in the language and culture of the day. Turmeric was used to treat skin conditions, infections, fevers, liver and heart conditions, and a wide variety of others. Now we know that many of those uses were very effective, even if the practitioners of the day couldn’t explain why in today’s technical language.

Here are some of turmeric’s properties: it’s antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antioxidant, anti-carcinogenic, renal- (kidney) and hepato- (liver) protective, and can protect against DNA damage. It helps to rebuild a healthy population of gut flora (the microbiome), it stimulates production of bile from the gall bladder to enhance digestion and reduce the likelihood of gallstones, and it helps to protect and rebuild the mucous lining of the stomach. The list goes on and on, the more we learn about it.

So what’s not to like?
There are some negatives, no question. Before getting to those, however, I want to mention some of the problems with the way turmeric is being hyped and promoted. The first–and worst–is the way curcumin (one of the active ingredients of turmeric) is being pushed as preferable to whole turmeric. Given our predilection for popping pills for our ills, instead of addressing lifestyle issues, it’s no wonder that people are tempted by these fancily packaged (and expensive) preparations.

But the narrow focus on curcumin is a result of several other factors as well. One of them is that nearly all the medical research on turmeric has actually been done with a very high concentrate of curcumin extract (curcumin is the primary active ingredient in turmeric). A standardized 95% concentrate, in fact. There are some good reasons for that. Turmeric is a plant, and like all other plants, the content of its constituents varies according to multiple considerations. The soil, the weather, the geographic region, the specific strain of the curcuma Longa variety (and to a lesser extent, the use of other varieties), the processing procedures to convert from fresh root to packaged powder–all affect the percentage of curcuminoids in the finished product. While the curcuminoids (curcumin and two others) are not the only active constituents in turmeric, they are the primary ones, the ones responsible for most of the therapeutic qualities of turmeric, and it makes sense for them to be the most studied.

For a medical trial to be valid, it’s essential that each aspect of it is tightly controlled. If curcumin is the element being studied, then you can’t have a variable quantity of it from one trial to the next–the researchers would never know for sure whether poor results in a trial meant that curcumin was ineffective for the condition under study, or simply that the batch of turmeric they were using was low in curcumin (it varies naturally from about 2% to 5%). So curcumin was extracted from turmeric and used in a standardized concentration of 95% (this is typical for the study of most plant derivatives, in fact).

Another factor in the focus on curcumin, rather than whole turmeric, is that turmeric is a natural product. It can’t easily be patented, though that has been attempted. One patent actually was granted, but later overturned. American University published an interesting TED case study, if you care to read about it in more detail. The short version is that the University of Mississippi Medical Center was granted a patent on the use of turmeric for wound healing. Two years later, in 1995, the patent was withdrawn after being challenged by the government of India, who pointed out quite reasonably that Indians had been using turmeric for wound healing for thousands of years. In the wake of that decision, companies with a profit motive had to find another way to package turmeric that they could claim as unique. A manufactured extract enabled them to do just that.

Selling the extract also allowed supplement manufacturers to get on the commercial bandwagon. How better to advertise your product than to point to studies by the US National Institutes of Health? Studies that found turmeric to be a potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant? Studies that showed a potential for fighting cancer, and more? Better yet, with the growing interest in “complementary and alternative medicine,” the advertising department could throw in phrases like “used in Ayurveda medicine for thousands of years” and “Indians have the lowest rate of [Alzheimers, Parkinsons, general dementia, take your pick].” The fact that these claims were quite true made everyone happy–the customers buying the capsules and the companies banking the considerable profits. But the curcumin wasn’t necessarily making patients better.

Curcumin is NOT turmeric
For dietary and therapeutic needs, turmeric has been used almost exclusively in its whole form for thousands of years, and documented in that form. The extraction of the three curcuminoids for medical purposes is a wholly new thing. Not only that, but virtually all the documentation of turmeric from those thousands of years describes how it acts in humans. Most modern trials of curcumin were conducted in test tubes using not just a standardized curcumin extract, but also standardized cell lines. Others were conducted with mice and rats. Nothing wrong with that–it’s how most trials of potentially useful new products begin, and murine (mouse) trials are done precisely because they’re good at predicting how something will act in humans. If those trials are successful, others may be designed to see whether you get the same results in humans (and quite a few are in progress right now).

The problem is that using curcumin for these trials, rather than whole turmeric, skews both the procedures and the interpretation of results. Researchers discovered early on that neither turmeric nor the extracted curcumin are water-soluble. In other words, curcumin does not dissolve in stomach fluids and get digested in the small intestine. In the absence of a lipid (another word for fats and oils) in the same meal where turmeric or curcumin is consumed, most of it speeds right on through the digestive system and is happily flushed out the other end. This was hardly a problem for Indians, as their traditional diet included fats and oils–oils, typically, in the south, animal fats more commonly in the north. But nearly every report of a medical trial includes the phrase that “curcumin is poorly absorbed,” and that phrase has been picked up and used as a mantra in a very large percentage of the articles about turmeric. It has come to be accepted that in order to get any measurable amount into the test subject’s bloodstream, it’s necessary to use huge amounts of curcumin. And the converse–that whole turmeric has too little curcumin to be effective–was also widely disseminated.

But hey, what if you add a lipid?
Someone finally realized that turmeric (or curcumin) needed to be ingested with a lipid in order to be absorbed into the bloodstream. Did they suggest a return to the traditional way of eating whole turmeric with a fat or oil, you ask? Well…no. Can’t patent that. At the present time, there are at least three patented methods for combining extracted curcumin with some kind of lipid to improve absorption (that I’m aware of–it’s possible there are more). Other technologies are being developed, the most promising being to combine curcumin with some variety of nanoparticles. Health bloggers–even some doctors–outdo each other to extol the merits of their favorite concoction of curcumin and delivery system. The notion of simply adding whole turmeric to one’s meals, along with an appropriate oil or fat, was until recently hardly mentioned at all.

Is a lipid the only thing you need?
An oil or fat in the meal will get the curcumin (either an extract or dissolved naturally out of ingested turmeric) into the bloodstream (will cause it to be absorbed, in more technical terms). But curcumin has another unhelpful property. It is metabolized (broken up into its individual components) very quickly, and then those components, now converted by the liver into a water-soluble form, are excreted by the kidneys. So most curcumin trials also contain the phrase “is rapidly metabolized” or “is not bio-available,” along with “is not well absorbed.” But no problem, really, just give the test subject even more curcumin. Some of it will show up in the bloodstream, even if it doesn’t stay there long.

An examination of the traditional Indian diet revealed that another substance was almost always present in meals containing turmeric–good old black pepper. It turns out that piperine, one of the active ingredients in pepper, slows down that conversion process and allows the curcumin to circulate in the bloodstream much longer than it would otherwise do. So more patented products popped up, now combining the curcumin extract with a piperine extract. A few products even combined a lipid/curcumin combination with the piperine extract. More advertising buzzwords, more fancy packaging, more consumer dollars in the bank.

So now we have curcumin, a lipid and piperine all in the same capsule. Okay?
Maybe…but maybe not. Remember that the Indian diet contains large amounts of a natural product containing 2 to 5% curcumin, not 95% curcumin. And curcumin is not the only active ingredient in turmeric, nor is piperine the only active ingredient in pepper. Moreover, the oil or fat used in cooking has traditionally been a relatively unrefined product, either a pressure-extracted oil, or ghee (clarified butter). The lipid used in most of the capsules that contain a lipid at all is a highly refined vegetable oil product–not even whole oil. It’s also often a byproduct of the soybean industry, which in the US means a genetically modified product. In those capsules that contain pepper, almost all are manufactured with piperine, not with whole pepper. The synergy between the multitude of active ingredients in both turmeric and pepper is lost, to be replaced with an artificially high percentage of just one constituent from each plant.

Artificially high…is that a problem?
The thing is, we don’t actually know for certain whether it’s a problem or not, because there is no data on the longterm use of 95% curcumin extract. Some trials that administered up to 8 grams a day of the stuff showed no short term adverse effects. But almost no trials went beyond three months (which is why many of the early supplement labels specified that their product shouldn’t be used for longer than three months). Some researchers have found DNA damage from extremely high doses of extracted curcumin. Others have expressed concern about the burden on the liver to clear such large amounts of curcumin from the bloodstream. I’ll examine these aspects more fully on another day.

Why not just have turmeric?
Great idea, but you do still need to add the lipid and the pepper. The internet is flooded right now with articles on how to add turmeric to your diet. Turmeric, in fact, is probably one of the most tagged and Googled words in the English language at the moment. But most of those writers–well meaning though they may be–assume that turmeric can simply be lifted from the diet in which it was originally used, and dropped into the very different Western diet. So we have recipes for “golden milk” (adapted from the traditional Indian beverage) and “golden tea” (a Western concoction) and recommendations to add fresh turmeric root to your smoothies or your juicing. Few of those recipes contain both a lipid and black pepper, though some do give the nod to one or the other. Many are overly sweetened with honey, agave, stevia, or even–heaven help us–an artificial sweetener. Many assume that fresh turmeric root must be better than powdered turmeric (not necessarily). There are recipes for baked turmeric dog treats (unfortunately, the high heat of baking degrades the effectiveness of both turmeric and pepper), and recipes for baked cookies or biscuits for people. And sadly, many of the health bloggers still say things like, “To get your turmeric, you can also use curcumin capsules.” Even worse, many of them use these authoritative-sounding articles merely to push their own products.

So what are we supposed to do?
Other than changing to a traditional Indian diet (not a bad idea, but not many Westerners are going to do it), how can we incorporate turmeric into our lives in a way that makes it both well absorbed and bio-available? An Australian veterinarian, Dr. Doug English, became intrigued with turmeric and spent much of the last decade working on just that problem. The outcome of his research is a product that has come to be called “Golden Paste.” The ingredients are easily available, and can be thrown together in anyone’s kitchen. The dosage is easily adjusted and is measured by results, not in milligrams or other arbitrary amounts. Combined in one’s food, it can be eaten by humans and fed to pets and livestock (even birds).

Here is the recipe for the Golden Paste:

1/2 cup powdered turmeric
1 cup water, with another cup in reserve
1/3 cup of a non-inflammatory oil–coconut, olive or linseed (called flaxseed in the US)
1-1/2 teaspoons of freshly ground black pepper

Combine the turmeric and water in a saucepan and heat gently on the stovetop for 7-8 minutes. Add as much water as necessary to get a soft paste consistency (the exact amount of water isn’t hugely important–adjust to your preference). Stir this slurry while it cooks, and then let it cool until the pan is just warm to the touch. Add the oil and pepper, mixing very well. Spoon or pour into a clean jar or other container and refrigerate. It will last up to three or four weeks, though it’s best used within two weeks. It can also be frozen, if that amount is more than you think you can use within a couple of weeks.

Did you notice that the pepper is to be freshly ground? The reason is that the piperine in the pepper doesn’t hang around forever. The exact amount of time during which it’s viable depends on a number of factors–exposure to heat and oxygen, how finely the pepper is ground, and others. But it’s safe to assume that the container of ground black pepper you picked up from the grocery store doesn’t come anywhere near the description of “freshly ground.” So to be on the safe side, use whole peppercorns and grind them yourself just before combining them with the turmeric, water and oil.

Add a small amount of the Golden Paste (start out with no more than 1/4 teaspoon) to beverages (coffee, tea, hot chocolate, juice, smoothies). Add it to eggs, to rice and pasta dishes, to all kinds of soups, stews and casseroles. Mix it with peanut butter for a unique sandwich filling, or with your favorite salad dressing for a tropical flavor. Have it a couple of times a day at first, and then, as your digestive system gets used to it, you can have it more often, or increase the amount you use in your food each time. If you (or the partner or children or dog or horse or cow) experience any kind of digestive upset like soft bowel movements or even diarrhea, reduce the amount you’re using each time, or the number of times you have it during the day. I’ve found that I can’t have more than a teaspoon at a time of the Golden Paste, though I have that quantity four or five times a day.

Want to know more?
Stay tuned for additional articles here, and check out the Turmeric User Group on Facebook. A TUG website is also coming soon, and I’ll add the website address when it goes live.

Have a wonderful turmeric-filled day!

(copyright H Wallis 2015)