What is Turmeric (and how to pronounce it)

Tumeric has some tremendous health benefits. But it suffers from one, not-so-tiny issue.
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Turmeric plant bulbs
Check out Andersons Tropicals on Etsy, where this photo comes from.

Turmeric is hot right now. Everyone from infomercial hosts to Instagrammers are singing the praises of a plant that has been around for a number of centuries.

Turmeric is similar to ginger in that it’s a flowering plant and an oft-used spice and coloring. Like ginger, the benefits of turmeric have been enjoyed by cultures dating back thousands of years but are just now coming to light given some recent in vitro studies. It has been used as an ingredient in everything from skincare to healthcare. It’s sometimes even billed as a wonder food that can lower cholesterol, guard against disease, and improve the shelf life of foods.

We understand turmeric to be good for us in many different capacities—but what of all of this is proven?

While the benefits of turmeric are becoming well publicized, what exactly is it?

I’m a certified personal trainer, but I’m not a nutritionist. I did consult one to review this article, however so most of our bases should be covered.

Here’s what you should know about one of the oldest (and maybe hardest to pronounce) plants in the history of mankind … in 5 minutes.

First … how to pronounce turmeric correctly 

The “r” seems a bit out of place in turmeric. One of the correct pronunciations for turmeric is:

tur-muh-rikh

…while an alternative that doesn’t pronounce the R is often correct:

Too-muh-rikh

Turmeric is commonly found in Indian food as an ingredient in curries and as food coloring for dairy products, among other foods. Compounding some of the confusion regarding the pronunciation is that turmeric can commonly be referred to as Haldi in India, not turmeric.

A Haldi ceremony. Haldi’s yellow color is symbolic of hope and prosperity and is frequently used during wedding cermonies to offer the newly married couple best wishes. Photo courtesy of Muskan Talreja05

What does turmeric do?

Turmeric has historically been a natural food coloring and dye, but has become popularized in western culture for its antioxidant properties, in addition to its ability to leave stains on your kitchen counter that will likely remain forever (I believe they call that “sticking to your roots”).

Where and how does it grow?

The turmeric you’re likely using in your smoothie or that is found in your tea is the ground up rhizome of the plant. For those who don’t remember back to 5th-grade science class, rhizomes are the extension or stem of a plant’s roots.

The plant is grown by the hundreds of thousands of tons throughout India, with Telangana (India’s 12th most populated state) growing close to 300,000 tons in 2018 alone. Harvests can also be found in other parts of Southeast Asia, or even grown at home. Most reports have somewhere between 80%-90% of the world’s Turmeric produced in India.

Full view of a turmeric plant with its ryzomes and roots shown. Courtesy of Thamizhpparithi Maari

Health benefits

The FDA won’t directly claim the benefits of Turmeric, but many cultures have used it in various capacities for years. The pre-dominant traits often associated with turmeric are:

  1. It’s effect on iron absorption in your body
  2. It’s ability to provide digestive support
  3. Aiding in the recovery of inflammatory conditions
  4. Helping to oxidate (remove harmful elements) from the body

The issue with Turmeric

The reason why organizations few have directly validated the benefits of the plant is its inability to be absorbed into your bloodstream. Over 90% of the curcumin (the active ingredient in turmeric that’s proving the supposed benefit) has been shown to end up in our bowels. This prevents researchers from knowing the true benefits it can have on our bodies.

Qunol Turmeric

Enter Qunol. This is a supplement advertising an answer to the whole, tedious absoprtion problem. Qunol is turmeric re-packaged and branded into a number of different products—drink powder, pills, and a liquid form. Qunol claims to have a formula that makes turmeric better absorbed, which appears to just be black pepper extract and a water separation technology that is mostly unproven. There is already a somewhat vaild way of boosting absorption mentioned below.

They sell a bottle of 120 pills (12 grams) for $30, while I just bought 448 grams for $9 on Amazon. AndersonTropicals (pictured in the above post) will sell you 1/4 pound of the real McCoy for $8.

Qunol Turmeric’s spokesperson Dr. Travis Stork is perhaps best known for being a personality on The Doctors, a TV show which received this review from the British Medical Journal:

Approximately half of the recommendations [on the show] have either no evidence or are contradicted by the best available evidence. Potential conflicts of interest are rarely addressed.

British Medical Journal

Possible Side Effects

Turmeric appears to have a reliable safety record and doesn’t have any prominent side effects if kept to the recommended dosage. Medical studies have noted that some people might experience diarrhea or nausea with higher doses. As mentioned above, an excess of turmeric may lead to an iron deficiency due to turmeric’s ability to absorb iron in the body.

The recommended amount taken for a day or allowable daily intake (ADI) was established at 3mg/kg, which for the Yanks can be translated to:

  • 33 mg for 225 pound person
  • 23 mg for a 150 pound person
  • 15 mg for 100 pound woman

Are curcumin and turmeric the same thing?

Sort of. Turmeric is perhaps most known for its benefits as an antioxidant, which is present in the polyphenols throughout the root. Curcumin is an active ingredient and one of the most active polyphenols found in Turmeric.

Nutritionists recommend adding pepper to turmeric to help maximize curcumin’s absorption (this is due to the presence of piperine in black pepper).

When people speak of the health benefits of Turmeric, the presence of curcumin is one of the primary reasons why. Antioxidant activity is 8 times stronger in Turmeric than Vitamin E, the latter of which is well known as an immune booster. This is from a study from the University of Lahore.

Should it be added to your diet?

Prior to 2003, the Scientific Community for Food didn’t declare an acceptable dietary intake for turmeric as it was a food coloring and not classified as natural food.

With everyone from Instagram stars to the former Bachelor hawking turmeric as a nutritional supplement, it might be best advised (and most affordable) to implement turmeric as a spice or additive to enhance your food before paying a 500% premium. Expecting discernible, consistent health benefits might not be reliable due to the low bioavailability, or absorption, of turmeric.

Final Minute

Like any pandemic (probably) people are going to flock to anything that begins or ends with antioxidant or immune. Is Turmeric a wonder food that’s worth spending a premium on? Highly unlikely. Turmeric is relatively easy for anyone to grow in certain climates (warm and moist mainly) making it easy to come by.

That said, turmeric is hampered by one thing: poor bioavailability. Most valid research groups won’t give it an emphatic stamp of approval simply because it affects all of our bodies differently and in over 90% of cases, not very much at all. Your mileage will vary using Turmeric as a nutritional supplement, and while it doesn’t appear to have a number of side effects, it conversely might not always deliver all of its health benefits, either.

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