Turmeric and Curcumin: Are They the Same Thing?
The natural health industry is currently consumed with ‘curcumin wars’. They do this sort of thing to everyone’s annoyance because it confuses and paralyzes both customers and doctors. I do not propose to directly compare the various proprietary curcumin products here. That would be informative but really technical and this is quite enough!
Turmeric is all the rage. Curcuma longa is a rhizome related to ginger. From its traditional use in Indian cuisine many benefits have been observed1. However, the anti-inflammatory effects of turmeric, its ability to reduce chronic pain has fixed the attention of health professionals and the public. Chronic pain is widely experienced and pharmaceutical agents are few, ineffective and often dangerous. As a natural health product (NHP) that safely and effectively reduces pain and inflammation, turmeric commands attention.
Seeing the potential demand, manufacturers have developed a great many turmeric derived products. Claims aremade, studies are cited, competitors are dismissed. A state of aggressive marketing leaves everyone confused and uncertain. Let’s sort this out.
Turmeric contains a set of fat-soluble ingredients – curcuminoids – that some authorities believe are responsible for its therapeutic benefits. It is held that curcuminoids are poorly absorbed when turmeric is consumed as a food. Consequently, manufacturers have developed competing methods of concentrating and presenting curcuminoids to enhance their fat solubility by some proprietary process. What are sold in retail stores as ‘Curcumin’ products are modified nutraceuticals derived from turmeric. By extracting curcuminoids and enhancing their bioavailability such manufacturers believe they can better deliver the potential of turmeric for a consumer’s benefit.
This opinion is opposed by other authorities who claim that only ‘full-spectrum’ natural turmeric has true and safe efficacy. Curcumin manufacturers are criticized for pharmaceuticalizing turmeric without a proper scientific basis.Andrew Weil, MD says “I believe whole turmeric is more effective than isolated curcumin for inflammatory disorders, including arthritis…”2. Note that this axis of difference between ‘full-spectrum, food-state’ advocates and the ‘neutraceutical’ crowd plays out for many ingredients.
Natural turmeric defenders make two other points. One is that when whole turmeric is consumed along with some oil then the fat-soluble curcuminoids are properly absorbed. Secondly, that the whole root contains a range of synergistic ingredients that deliver benefits far beyond selected curcuminoids. New Chapter and Mega-Food make natural turmeric products reflecting this line of thinking.
Curcumin advocates say that for people with chronic pain natural turmeric fails to deliver in a timely way. They further claim that curcumin studies and trials are promising and that the technology of effectively boosting their absorption is proven and available.
Seeking proprietary advantage, manufacturers lock onto one delivery technology – liposomes, nanoparticles, emulsifiers etc. All branded natural health manufacturers purchase their curcumin ingredients from a primary ingredient supplier. Here’s an example of what that looks like:
The curcumin micronisate was produced by RAPS GmbH & Co. KG (Kulmbach, Germany) using their “concentrated powder form” technology by mixing 25% curcumin powder with 58.3% triacetin and 16.7% panodan (E472e) and spraying the solution onto the porous excipient silicon dioxide.3
Many of the most reputable NHP manufacturers have taken up one or another of the proprietary curcumins – AOR, Thorne Research, Natural Factors. Nutraceutical advocates are fond of citing studies showing that some ‘markers’ responded favourably in trials with a proprietary curcumin. It’s a long road from a self-proclaimed marker to a demonstrated benefit.
The integrity of any turmeric or curcumin product is something further that deserves consideration. Basically, this means ‘Is what’s on the label in the bottle’? And nothing else. Don’t imagine that Health Canada is of any use on this when they license the products. Sure enough, there are big problems. Many turmeric products have been recently found to be contaminated with lead. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has ordered a lot of recalls4. Proprietary curcumin manufacturers having tighter control over their raw materials have not been so affected. However, Sabinsa a large and reputable primary manufacturer has taken legal action against a competitor citing:
Results of radiocarbon testing by University of Georgia Center for Applied Isotope Studies on commercially available samples of Curcumin sold by Bayir for export to the US determined that the material was 43% synthetic.5
Now, let’s consider price. If you were considering a branded curcumin product for chronic arthritis, to ward off approaching dementia or for heart health, be prepared to shell out big time. Such products need to taken regularly and over a long time. Can you afford this? Turmeric products are relatively cheaper but you might have to take more to produce a favourable benefit. You might choose to cook and eat turmeric as a food or spice but not everybody likes the stuff and it’s a lot of trouble.
An alternative option is developing. Manufacturers have noted consumer price resistance and hybrid products have emerged. These blend natural turmeric with proprietary curcumin. This presents a broader range of ingredients and keeps the price down. Sisu has chosen this approach with its new Full Spectrum Curcumin. Expect to see more of this.
How to make sense of all of this? One thing you will NOT find are head-to-head studies. That is where the various turmeric and curcumin products are directly compared in independent comparative trials. Nobody is paying for this sort of thing because all interested parties fear their products will show up badly.
The best advice at this time is to Mix and Match. Select one full-spectrum turmeric product and one proprietary curcumin product. Take half the recommended dose of each across the day with meals. There are few side-effects with either turmeric or curcumin – outright allergenicity or gall-bladder issues being possible for some. If your symptoms, whatever they are, do not noticeably diminish after one bottle of each product or one month, increase the dosage to the full amount of each of the turmeric and curcumin products. Again, for one month or one bottle. If chronic pain is your issue, that should be sufficient to determine if these ingredients will provide you with relief.
Further, consider weaving turmeric/curcumin alongside other anti-inflammatories such as ginger root or bromelain. This much widens the range of nutrients brought to bear on pain and certainly reduces the cost.
Nature’s Source staff are quite well informed about all natural anti-inflammatories. Have a review and discussion of your options because there are many.