The truth about turmeric: Is this trendy spice another health fad?

January 18, 2019 Providence Health Team


In this article:

  • Turmeric is an ancient spice that has become a current-day health fad.

  • Supplements that sound too good to be true should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism.

  • Providence registered dietitian Terese Scollard shares why it’s key to have realistic expectations about turmeric’s potential benefits -- and why it’s important to always talk to your doctor before adding any new supplement to your diet.

Turmeric may be an ancient spice dating back thousands of years, but it’s been enjoying newfound fame as one of the latest health food fads. Turmeric seems to be omnipresent — it’s a pill or powder supplement, the featured ingredient in drinks such as tea and “golden milk,” and a flavor in everything from crackers to protein bars.

Touted for antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties, this golden-colored spice with Asian Indian roots may seem like the cure for everything that ails you. There is some evidence for a few conditions that turmeric may help. Unfortunately, turmeric’s benefits have been oversold. A recent large-scale human trial does not support claims that the curcumin contained in turmeric has powerful effects on the inflammatory response.

“It’s a good, nutritious food ingredient; it’s not going to hurt anyone to eat it, but it’s not magic,” says Terese Scollard, regional clinical nutrition manager and a registered dietitian nutritionist with Providence Health & Services in Portland, Oregon.

While there has been some interesting research on turmeric, the key is noting the words used in that research: Reputable sources are careful to include words like “may” or “might” when talking about the spice’s potential health benefits, to caution the reader to take the claims with a metaphorical grain of salt.

“People take ‘might’ or ‘may’ and jump over the research and start selling, promoting, and writing articles about it,” Scollard says. “It helps the sales of turmeric, and there is a little preliminary evidence to support that it will potentially help some conditions; however, it does not cure anything. People jump to conclusions.

“If you look up turmeric, there are a lot of interesting articles about it, but I think some of the information feeds into some kind of magical thinking we humans have about trying to stay well,” Scollard adds. “These kinds of stories miss the forest for the trees, and they don’t look at a person’s overall nutrition or lifestyle. Those things really do make a difference. A lifestyle of exercise, eating balanced meals, quitting smoking, and eliminating alcohol is a huge first step. Doing those things will give you more benefits than eating turmeric.”

The idea of turmeric, or any other substance, as a magic bullet for wellness can be problematic. Scollard recalls one patient who said she spent hundreds of dollars a month on various supplements. “I was concerned, because she was taking substances that cause the blood to clot and others that cause the blood not to clot. These people are experimenting on themselves, but they think they are helping themselves and there is absolutely no consumer protection,” she says. “It’s completely buyer beware. There’s more money put in marketing this supplement business than put into the government educating consumers about what’s safe. It’s really out of balance, and the consumer ends up on the short end of the stick.”

When it comes to turmeric — or anything with claims that sound almost too good to be true — Scollard advises you to view it with a healthy skepticism. “Get most of your nutrients from food. There are populations that need supplements, but they should use products from bigger brands that assure safe manufacturing practices,” she says. “And you should never start any kind of supplement without your doctor’s knowledge. You may not know if it can have an interaction with a medication you are taking, and your physician and pharmacist can access safety information for it.”

She adds that if you are spending a lot of money on turmeric-related products in the hopes of transforming your health, you'll probably only end up transforming your wallet. Instead, eat turmeric if you enjoy it, but consider it just one of many ways to add healthy flavors to a dish like Chef Tse’s turkey sliders in the resource links below — after all, variety is the spice of life.  

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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