Turmeric: We All Wanted to Believe

R.I.P. this health trend.

01.12.17
Turmeric root and powder

I keep hearing about turmeric. All the trendy health spots in New York have been putting it in their juices and quinoa bowls and expensive vinaigrettes. I keep seeing it written on sidewalk chalkboards! Maybe that’s when a spice has really made it to the big leagues. But the cool thing about turmeric is it actually has a long history of healing. It’s been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries and it’s also been the focus of a fair amount of scientific research.

According to a bunch of listicles, turmeric’s been proven to have anti-inflammatory properties, be a powerful antioxidant, boost brain function, lower your risk of heart disease, help fight cancer, improve symptoms of depression…that’s only like half the benefits attributed to it. This shit is amazing, right?

Well, perhaps the hype has been a little outsize as compared to the benefits. In fact, according to new research, we ought to forget everything we’ve ever heard about turmeric. “Turmeric has done the full circle: from ancient remedy to hipster Western drink,” Quartz reported this morning. “Scientists have now had enough.”

A chemical compound in turmeric called curcumin is what most, if not all, the benefits are ascribed to. But a new review of chemical evidence unearthed some pretty damning information about how curcumin behaves in scientific studies. In essence, it creates “false hits.” Meaning, the compound will appear to interact with proteins in a way that indicates it has medicinal properties, but when taken to clinical trial, it fails every time. Compounds that behave this way are called PAINS (pan-assay interference compounds).

Michael Walters of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis calls curcumin “a cautionary tale.” Since these findings emerged, Quartz reports that “[a]t least 15 studies on curcumin have been retracted from scientific literature, and dozens more have had corrections appended to them.” Curcumin has been officially deemed an “unstable, reactive, non-bioavailable compound and, therefore, a highly improbable lead [for drug development].”

But wait! Good news. Dr. Rupy Aujla, general practitioner and founder of The Doctor’s Kitchen (where he researches and creates recipes with health benefits), says that curcumin doesn’t have to take turmeric down with it. “What people fail to realize is turmeric is made up of hundreds if not thousands of different chemicals,” he says. “Curcumin is just one. This is why I’m a fan of getting your minerals, vitamins and nutrients from whole foods in lieu of isolating individual compounds.”

So maybe we won’t see it disappear from sandwich boards after all.

Photos via iStock.

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