THE TRUTH ABOUT TURMERIC

If you’ve got your finger on the pulse of the health and wellness scene, chances are you’ve heard a lot about turmeric in the last few years. Alongside more traditional turmeric-containing dishes like chicken tikka masala; hip cafes and health bloggers have begun adding it to everything from smoothies to pancakes and omelettes. Almond milk turmeric latte, anyone? 

The bright orange-yellow spice has been used in Asian medicine and cuisine for thousands of years, but has more recently received a lot of attention in the West for the bold list of health benefits attributed to it. The simple spice has been touted as an anti-inflammatory, an anti-depressant, an anti-coagulant, a painkiller, a blood sugar and cholesterol regulator – it’s even been claimed turmeric reduces the risk of cancer. But can this all be true?

This was the exact question asked by Michael Mosley, who noticed that although thousands of studies had been done on turmeric, they had mostly been done on mice, not people, and in larger quantities than anyone would realistically consume.

As a result, Mosley began his own study, bringing together 100 human volunteers in the first experiment of its kind. These volunteers were divided into three groups. The first group was instructed to consume a teaspoon of turmeric every day, ideally with their food; the second were asked to take a supplement containing the same amount of turmeric; the third were given a placebo. In each case, the experiment lasted six weeks.

The tests were developed by Professor Martin Widschwendter and his team at University College, London, who look at how cancers start. By comparing tissue samples from women with and without breast cancer, they’ve discovered that a change takes place in cell DNA long before the cells actually become cancerous, meaning that if this change is detected fast enough there is potential for it to be reversed before cancer develops. The team was asked to look at whether or not turmeric had preventative properties in this context.

"We were delighted," said Professor Widschwendter, "to be involved in this study, because it is a proof of principle study that opens entirely new windows of opportunity to really look into how we can predict preventive measures, particularly for cancer."

The results were interesting. Unsurprisingly, there was no change in the group taking the placebo -- but neither was there any change in the group taking the supplement.

"But the group who mixed turmeric powder into their food," he went on, "there we saw quite substantial changes. It was really exciting, to be honest. We found one particular gene which showed the biggest difference. And what's interesting is that we know this particular gene is involved in three specific diseases: depression, asthma and eczema, and cancer. This is a really striking finding.

This suggests that turmeric – at least in certain forms – really does live up to the hype. But why were the results so different when it came to the supplement? Dr. Kirsten Brandt, a senior lecturer at Newcastle University who helped run the experiment, offered some suggestions.

"It could be that adding fat or heating it up makes the active ingredients more soluble, which would make it easier for us to absorb the turmeric. It certainly gives us something, to work on, to try to find out exactly what's happening."

Evidently, there is much that is still unknown, and far more research of this kind needs to be done to be able to say definitively whether turmeric really is the superfood many claim it to be. But in light of this study, it looks as though you should keep drinking your turmeric lattes, at least for the time being.

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