Ask the Doc

What’s the Difference Between Curcumin and Turmeric?

Considered a superfood, turmeric is the spice that gives Indian food and curries their characteristic golden-orange color.

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I featured turmeric in my book, The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth (Fair Winds Press, 2007) largely because it contains bioactive compounds, the most famous (and biologically active) of which is curcumin.

There’s enough solid research on curcumin to fill a book. It’s a powerful anti-inflammatory and a powerful antioxidant, exerting measurable and positive effects on everything from pain to cognitive performance to cancer. You can think of curcumin as a kind of natural NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) like Advil or Ibuprofen, only with more benefits. It improves cognitive function in patients with Alzheimer’s, decreases beta-amyloid plaques, and is believed to have a potential role in the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s.

In a study published in Diabetes Care, researchers gave adults with prediabetes either a placebo or curcumin capsules. After nine months, 16.4% of patients in the placebo group developed full-blown type 2 diabetes, as opposed to 0% of patients in the curcumin group.

And while no one is claiming that curcumin cures cancer, preliminary evidence on its antitumorigenic and antimutagenic properties of this remarkable compound are promising. There are several clinical trials going on that are designed to assess curcumin for safety and efficacy in patients with breast, prostate, pancreatic, lung and colorectal cancer. In animal studies, curcumin inhibits the development of oral, stomach, liver and colon cancers.

The question that inevitably comes up is whether it’s better to take turmeric or to take curcumin supplements. There are those who believe that there are medicinal compounds in turmeric in addition to curcumin that would be lost to us if we only took curcumin supplements. But there’s no reason to have to choose.

I’m a big advocate of using turmeric as much as possible and taking curcumin supplements. Remember that when you use turmeric as a spice, it’s best to always use it with black pepper as a compound in pepper (piperine) increases curcumin’s bioavailability.

Get the benefits of curcumin at home, try this roasted root vegetables recipe.