Turmeric is a perennial plant of the ginger family, native to southwest India. Turmeric is commonly consumed in powder form and used as a spice.
To make turmeric powder, the roots of the plant are boiled for 30-45 minutes, dried in ovens and then ground into a deep orange-yellow powder. Turmeric powder is a common spice used in Indian and Pakistani cuisine. It is a major component of curry and can also be used for dyeing cloth.
There are three naturally occurring phytochemicals in turmeric: curcumin, demethoxycurcumin and bisdemothoxycurcumin, together referred to as curcuminoids.
This MNT Knowledge Center feature is part of a collection of articles on the health benefits of popular foods. It provides a nutritional breakdown of turmeric and an in-depth look at its possible health benefits, how to incorporate more turmeric into your diet and any potential health risks of consuming turmeric.
Contents of this article:
Nutritional breakdown of turmeric
Turmeric has been used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medical practice to treat multiple health issues.
According to the USDA National Nutrient Database, one tablespoon of turmeric powder contains 29 calories, 0.9 grams of protein, 0.3 grams of fat and 6.3 grams of carbohydrates (including 2 grams of fiber and 0.3 grams of sugar).1
Turmeric has traditionally been used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine to treat inflammatory conditions, skin diseases, wounds, digestive ailments and liver conditions.
Possible benefits of consuming turmeric
Curcumin is the active substance in turmeric believed to be the source of many of its health benefits. Curcumin is also responsible for turmeric's distinctly earthy, slightly bitter and peppery flavor.
Curcumin may help improve digestion by stimulating the gallbladder to produce bile. A double-blind, placebo-controlled study showed that turmeric reduced bloating and gas in people suffering from indigestion. The German Commission E, a group that determines which herbs can safely be prescribed in Germany, has approved the use of turmeric for digestive problems.2
Curcumin lowers the levels of two enzymes in the body that cause inflammation, which may indicate that consuming turmeric would be helpful in treating many inflammatory conditions.2
Inflammation is a common thread that links the following conditions:
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn's disease and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Alzheimer's disease.
Curcumin shows promise as a natural anti-inflammatory treatment and is currently being tested in phase 2 and 3 clinical trials.3
In a clinical study on curcumin's effects on arthritis, 50 patients were given curcumin daily for 3 months. An increase in walking performance and distance was observed, as well as decreased inflammation levels.3
Curcumin has also been shown to be effective for inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. In multiple studies, people with inflammatory bowel diseases who were given curcumin supplements experienced a reduction in symptoms.3
Turmeric may reduce the risk of blood clot formation by preventing platelets from clumping together.
Turmeric has been shown to prevent blood platelets from clumping together, which may decrease the risk of blood clot formation. Early studies suggest that turmeric may help prevent the build-up of plaque in the arteries. In animal studies, turmeric extract lowered LDL (bad) cholesterol and prevented further accumulation.2
However, in a human study where participants were given 4 grams of curcumin per day, cholesterol levels were not improved.2
The anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric benefit cardiovascular health. Some studies have found that turmeric's antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties have produced the following effects in animal models:3
- Reduced body weight
- Lowered triglyceride synthesis
- Increased basal metabolic rate
- Increased fatty acid oxidation
- Improved insulin sensitivity.
All of these effects would lower the risk of heart disease. The findings of these studies need to be replicated in humans before turmeric is used as a form of treatment, however.
There is preliminary evidence that turmeric may be helpful in cancer prevention due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Epidemiological studies have identified inflammation as a major risk factor for cancer. More research is needed in this area.
Topical curcumin has also been found to relieve or reduce some secondary cancer symptoms such as reduced sense of smell, itching, lesion size and pain.3
The antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and circulatory effects of turmeric are all helpful in the prevention and treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, including as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis.
In a large population-based study of over 1,000 elderly patients with dementia, subjects who consumed a turmeric-rich curry throughout their life either occasionally, often or very often scored significantly better on the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE), an established measure of cognitive function, than those who rarely consumed curry.3
Type 2 diabetes
Oxidative stress and inflammatory reactions are major factors in the occurrence and development of type 2 diabetes. Curcumin appears to influence diabetes by stimulating the pancreas to produce and secrete insulin.
Several studies have found that curcumin can help regulate glucose and lipid metabolism in type 2 diabetes. In a study in which 240 pre-diabetic participants were given 250 mg curcumin supplements or a placebo twice daily for 9 months, those who were given the curcumin supplement were less likely to progress into full-blown diabetes.3
Turmeric or curcumin?
Although all of the above benefits are attributed to curcumin, some studies have indicated that whole turmeric has more benefits that curcumin in isolation. As well as improving the bioavailability of curcumin, whole turmeric includes aromatic turmerone, a compound that could induce stem cell proliferation and, as such, could be harnessed in the future to in treatments for neurodegenerative disorders.4,5
Studies investigating curcumin-free turmeric have shown that its components exhibit anti-inflammatory, anticancer and antidiabetic properties, further suggesting that curcumin is not the only component of turmeric to have healthful qualities.6
Additionally, a comparative study found that the levels of compounds such as arromatic turmerone were higher in the essential oils of fresh turmeric compared with dry turmeric, indicating that fresh turmeric has higher antioxidant properties than dry turmeric.7
How to incorporate more turmeric into your diet
Turmeric is easily combined with milk to make a refreshing and relaxing drink.
- Add turmeric into spice mixtures such as curry or barbecue rub
- Make a homemade dressing using part oil, part vinegar and seasonings including turmeric
- Change up your go-to marinades by adding turmeric.
Or, try these healthy and delicious recipes developed by registered dietitians:Mason jar lentil salad
Cumin-lime turmeric vinaigrette
Mango turmeric smoothie
Gold rush soup.
Turmeric is also available as a supplement in powder-containing capsules, fluid extract and tincture. Bromelain, a protein extract derived from pineapples, increases the absorption and effects of turmeric, so it is often combined with turmeric in these products.
Potential health risks of consuming turmeric
Using turmeric as a spice in food is considered safe; however, supplements are not regulated and may or may not contain what they claim.
Long-term large doses of turmeric may cause upset stomach and ulcers in extreme cases. Anyone with bile passage obstructions or gallstones should talk to their doctor before taking turmeric. Turmeric should not be taken with drugs that work to reduce stomach acid.
Turmeric may lower blood sugar levels. If you have diabetes, talk to you doctor before taking turmeric supplements because they may increase your risk of hypoglycemia.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women should not take turmeric supplements.
Because turmeric may act as a blood thinner, it should not be taken in supplement form at least 2 weeks before surgery, or combined with blood-thinning medications.
Researchers from the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine in Jülich, Germany, say a turmeric compound promotes stem cell proliferation and differentiation in the brain, giving hope for patients who suffer from stroke and Alzheimer's disease.
British researchers have scientifically proven that broccoli, turmeric, green tea and pomegranate help fight the most common cancer in men in the United States and the United Kingdom - prostate cancer.