Curcumin versus turmeric–what is the difference?

Turmeric, one of the most frequently used spices in Indian cuisine, is widely touted as the new superfood, miracle drug, cure-all, et cetera. But much of what is written about it misrepresents it badly. The greatest misunderstanding seems to be whether to use the word ‘turmeric ‘ or ‘curcumin.’ One sees article after article that promotes turmeric all the way through the article, and then at the end, suggests using a curcumin supplement.

But aren’t they the same thing?

Emphatically not. Turmeric is the rhizome (part of the plant’s stalk) of the curcuma genus (most of what is available in the west is from various cultivars of the species curcuma Longa). Curcumin is one of the active ingredients in turmeric, one of three curcuminoids. It is the most significant of the active ingredients, but by no means the only one.

Turmeric has been carefully studied and documented by Ayurveda, a traditional medical system of India going back thousands of years. Curcumin as a specific constituent of turmeric wasn’t known until sometime in the 19th century (1815, 1842 or 1870, depending on where you read), and its exact chemical structure wasn’t determined until 1910 (everyone seems to agree on that). It has been heavily scrutinized in the laboratory for its pharmaceutical properties since the 1940’s. Many of the studies and trials performed in Indian hospitals and universities used whole turmeric, but most of those conducted in the west have used a 95% standardized extract of curcumin.

There are good reasons for medical trials to use standardized extracts, primarily to ensure that the results of the trial are a consequence of specific known factors. But it has also resulted in the repeated confusion between whole turmeric and the extract of curcumin. Even some well-researched and peer-reviewed articles refer to turmeric and curcumin interchangeably, so it’s no wonder the ordinary person on the street is often confused.

If curcumin is the primary active component, then what difference does it make?

First, as mentioned above, it is not the only active ingredient. For example, the turmerones (the oils in turmeric) are being studied now for their pharmacological activity, as well as the other curcuminoids (besides curcumin). And these are not the only constituents with potential pharmaceutical benefits. But also, the various ingredients work best together, as they evolved together, in “synergy” with each other. Synergy describes the way in which individual components of a system contribute to a result greater than the sum of all the single constituents. The word sounds as though it might have originated with vague ideas of spiritism or the “airy-fairy,” but in reality, it’s a sound principle with many examples from the physical sciences.

Second, while the use of concentrated single-ingredient products may be useful in research, it doesn’t follow that this is the best way for people to eat the foods from which the products are derived. No one would suggest eating just the quercetin extracted from apples and blueberries instead of the whole fruit, or the bromelain extracted from pineapples instead of pineapple itself. Yes, those ingredients are indeed sold as supplements, but not as substitutes. We recognize that whole fruits and vegetables possess other valuable properties and should generally be eaten in their original form. Yet, illogically, the idea has persisted and spread that the curcumin extracted from turmeric is somehow preferable to turmeric itself.

Third, the promotion of extracted curcumin as a substitute for turmeric has a questionable purpose. The rhizomes which are sold fresh, and from which powdered turmeric is obtained, are from a plant that is not only cultivated by thousands of small farmers, but in many places grows wild. It is not something that can be patented (a patent actually was granted, but later withdrawn). It is, therefore, not something which is profitable in its original form for pharmaceutical companies. It is, essentially, a food. But a unique formulation of curcumin can be patented, and several have been. Therefore, it is in the interest of the supplement manufacturers to repeat statements such as “curcumin is poorly absorbed,” or “curcumin is not easily bio-available,” and then to point out how their formulation gets around those claims. They conveniently don’t mention, of course, that used in the traditional way (used for thousands of years, in fact), turmeric is indeed bio-available.

Fourth, the high concentration of curcumin in many of these extracts is in itself a concern. No studies have been done on their longterm safety. While supplement salespeople scoff at the idea, other high-concentrate extracts have indeed turned out to be inappropriate for longterm use (aspirin being one of the prime examples). Early supplement containers often were labeled with “Use only for three months” or similar warnings, because most of the trials have been conducted for no more than three months. Those pushing curcumin supplements point to the fact that humans have been given up to 8 grams of high-concentrate curcumin extracts a day for three months without adverse effects. One blogger, fighting melanoma, reports that she has taken 8 grams of curcumin a day for over four years without problem. But neither of these situations represents the typical person ingesting curcumin-extract supplements for an extended period. The fact is that we simply don’t know what the longterm effects will be. To use aspirin as an example again, the gastric side effects of aspirin weren’t well recognized for many years after its development. And it wasn’t until the mid 1970’s that Reye’s Syndrome became well-known (Reye’s Syndrome is a potentially fatal condition associated with the use of aspirin in young children, though it can occur in other circumstances as well).

Several studies have reported that high doses of curcumin (though they don’t specify exactly what would constitute “high doses”) can result in undesirable effects. One of the best-known of these was conducted by Dalian Medical University in China [1]. To quote:

But at high doses, we found that curcumin imposed oxidative stress and damaged DNA. These data reinforce the hypothesis that curcumin plays a conflicting dual role in carcinogenesis.

The objection has been raised that this trial was conducted with a cell line of human hepatoma (liver cancer) cells, and that it proves only that high-dose curcumin damages the cells of liver cancer. But that particular cell line was chosen specifically because it’s representative of how cells respond to xenobiotics (substances that aren’t part of the body, or part of its usual food).

…HepG2 cells reflect the metabolism of xenobiotics in the human body better than other metabolically incompetent cells (Mersch-Sundermann et al., 2004)

In this trial, the damage to mitochondrial DNA was “more extensive” than to the DNA in the cell nucleus. Why is that important? Because damage to mtDNA is thought to be associated with aging. The final verdict isn’t in–there is much ongoing research–but there does appear to be a good correlation [2]. mtDNA damage is also related to atherosclerosis [3] and Alzheimers Disease [4]. It has been implicated in autism, and it seems likely that other undesirable effects will be found as well.

So how should you consume turmeric?

To begin with, stop treating it as a drug. It is a food {with some potent pharmaceutical properties, no question), but it has been used as a food–a spice–for thousands of years with minimal (and well-documented) side effects. Unless you’re eating an Indian diet, using turmeric as it has always been used, combine it with a non-inflammatory oil and freshly ground black pepper in Golden Paste (see below).

Add the Golden Paste to other foods–any savoury dish such as soups, stews, casseroles, eggs, rice and pasta dishes. Add it to yoghurt, to smoothies, to coffee and cocoa and other hot beverages. Start out with about 1/4 tsp a couple of times a day, until you get used to it. Turmeric activates the whole digestive system, and consuming too much at first can result in a better acquaintance with the toilet than you might like.

As you become accustomed to it, after a week or so, increase the amount you’re using by adding it a third or even fourth time during the day. If you’re healthy and just want to maintain that good health, you may not need any more than that. If you suffer from an inflammatory condition, such as arthritis, you can continue to increase your consumption until you find relief, or until your digestive system lets you know that you’re having too much (stomach rumbling, gas, soft bowel movements, or even diarrhea). If that happens, reduce the amount you’re eating until those side effects go away.

Are there any other adverse effects?

The juice of fresh raw turmeric can cause a contact dermatitis (rash), though that’s uncommon, and if you use powdered turmeric, you’re unlikely to experience it at all. A very few people are actually allergic to turmeric, though that is rare. In contrast to the large number of food allergies people deal with routinely, an allergic reaction to turmeric is extremely rare, in fact.

If you’ve never used turmeric in cooking, or seldom eat Indian food like curries, you may experience one of the less common initial side effects. A few people have a slight headache, or may see skin eruptions like a mild rash or dry patches. Drinking more water usually takes care of both of these. If you persist with the very small recommended initial amount of the paste (1/4 teaspoon), both will go away.

Some people react to the type of oil they use in the paste, or to the pepper. If you experience an undesirable side effect, try changing the oil. Or if you know that you are allergic to black pepper, you can use the paste without the pepper. It won’t be as effective, as the pepper greatly aids in bioavailability. But you will still receive some benefit. Some people have found that the green peppercorns do not cause an allergic reaction–for them, the problem appears to be in the fermented skin of the black peppercorns.

Here is the recipe for the Golden Paste, courtesy of veterinarian Dr. Doug English and the Turmeric User Group on Facebook.

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.

More reading:

[1] DNA toxicity
Toxicological Sciences, Volume 91, Issue 2, pp. 476-483

[2] mtDNA damage related to aging
US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health

[3] mtDNA damage may cause atherosclerosis
Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism, Volume 25, Issue 9, pp 481–487

[4] mtDNA damage may cause Alzheimers
International Journal of Experimental Pathology, June 2005, pp 161-171

1 Comment

One Response

  1. Margaret Whalen says:

    I have a 9 year old Lhasa Apso, 7kg, Bitch. She has been diagnosed with tumour on top off heart which is inoperable & is growing quickly. She also suffers from IBS & Spinal Problems. She has been on Turmeric for over 4 weeks. I was suggested trying CURCUMIN, but I have noticed it can cause side affects. Could you please assist.