By now you'll have heard of the many health benefits of turmeric and curcumin and may have noticed that in some cases the terms are used interchangeably in the same article.
The two are mentioned together because curcumin comes from turmeric, and turmeric has been taken for thousands of years for it's health promoting properties. Scientists wanted to know exactly what it is about turmeric that is so good for our bodies and as a result discovered curcumin.
So what's the difference?
Turmeric is a plant and it's the roots of the plant that are used to make the spice that is used in cooking and herbal drinks. Curcumin is the naturally occurring compound within the plant's roots that give it it's bright yellow colour and is known as a carotenoid compound. It is also a very strong antioxidant. There are two other related compounds in turmeric called demethoxycurcumin and bisdemethoxycurcumin and collectively they are known as curcuminoids.
Other carotenoids that you may already know about are lutein and zeaxanthin - fantastic for eye health - and beta-carotene which the body converts into vitamin A. All carotenoids give the plants that contain them colour, this allows the plant to absorb light for energy and also function as antioxidants to fight free radical that may damage the plant cells. Many research studies to date have shown that curcumin may be able to influence cell signalling molecules within our bodies which would explain why it has wide ranging positive effects on our health.
If curcumin comes from turmeric does it matter which one you take? Is one better than the other?
There isn't a straight forward answer to this and there are arguments for both sides. Some experts say that we should get our nutrients from whole foods because other nutrients within that food affect how our bodies absorb them and therefore how we receive the health benefits. An example of this ideology is to eat most fruits as a whole, including the skin, rather than drinking fruit juice. The body responds to the sugar within fruit in an entirely different way when it's eaten as a whole fruit rather than as a juice.
Turmeric root that is dried and ground down into a powder is what you'll find in your spice rack while turmeric extract is more of an elixir that is made by shredding turmeric root and letting it sit in edible solvents. This is used in herbal blends such as wellness teas.
Curcumin extraction is more complicated - curcumin actually makes up only 3% of the weight of turmeric. It isolated and extracted by a process known as chromatography. This means you can get 100% curcumin from turmeric as a supplement, in comparison a turmeric extract can contain up to 95% curcumin and the root powder around 3%. Researchers say that extracted curcumin has more antioxidant activity when compared to the powder however it can be argued that the other curcuminoids in the powder also exhibit antioxidant behaviour.
Which one is better absorbed by the body?
Another factor in the curcumin v. turmeric debate is their respective bioavailability. The fact is neither of them are absorbed well, especially without a little bit of fat or oil. Turmeric root contains some natural oils which may help the body's absorption and is also more likely to be combined with additional oil when used in cooking. Turmeric powder is used in increasingly popular turmeric lattes which is a good way of consuming it as their are natural fats in milk.
Sometimes curcumin in supplement form is combined with essential fatty acids such as fish or krill oil however more effective in increasing the bioavailability of turmeric is black pepper. A compound in black pepper called piperine has been shown to keep turmeric compounds from being broken down during the digestion process and therefore allows it to stay longer in the body. Just Vitamins have added Bioperine® to our formulation because it increases the bioavailability of the turmeric supplement by 2000%. This considerably enhances its potency and effectiveness and is the reason that our turmeric tablets have the most re-purchases of any of our other supplements.
Whichever you choose, both curcumin and turmeric have their advantages
Turmeric powders and supplements offer a whole-foods approach, retaining more of the root’s nutrients as nature intended while curcumin supplements provide an isolated form of the most active antioxidant compound found in turmeric. Whichever way you look at it the benefits of this amazing spice is plain to see and is a health trend that is here to stay.
A healthy balanced diet is the best way to consume all the nutrients we need. Sometimes however this isn't possible and then supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying any supplements or herbal medicines.