In many varied forms including the very trendy turmeric latte, the humble yellow spice has made waves in 2016 and only shows signs of widening interest from foodies and doctors alike in the new year.

However, until very recently, the problem with making health claims related to the spice has been that the vast majority of scientific research into the benefits of turmeric – or more correctly, its active ingredient curcumin - has been done on mice, using “unrealistically high doses,” according to Michael Mosley of the BBC’s Trust Me, I’m a Doctor show.

Thus, Mosley set out to figure out the actual benefits of turmeric through real-world experiments.

Turmeric health boosts long touted by various cultures

For those not familiar with the use of turmeric, it is a shrub related to ginger and naturally resembles a ginger root. It is either used fresh as a root that can be sliced or pounded into a paste, or dried and ground into a powder to be added into various Asian dishes, and also as a medicinal herb in particular by the Indian ethnic groups.

Turmeric has commonly been used to aid digestion and liver function, relieve arthritis pain, and menstruation in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine. Of late, science has started to substantiate what the Indians have known for a long time and suggested that it really does contain compounds with even stronger medicinal values.

The purported medical effects of curcumin have a long history, dating back at least to the 18th century. In fact, in 1937, a paper in the Lancet medical journal described successful case studies using curcumin in the treatment of inflamed gall bladders.

More than a cheerful colour: Health claims slowly being confirmed

Working with top researchers, Mosley recruited 100 volunteers for their turmeric test and divided participants into three groups. In the first group, the volunteers consumed a teaspoon of turmeric every day for six weeks.

The second took a turmeric supplement, while the third group was given a placebo. Upon analysing their DNA, the scientists discovered that those who had consumed turmeric powder with their food showed promising results.

“We found one gene which showed the biggest difference. And what’s interesting is that we know this particular gene is involved in three specific diseases: depression, asthma and eczema, and cancer,” Dr. Martin Widschwendter, of University College London, told Mosley. “This is a really striking finding.”

However, Dr. Kristen Brandt of Newcastle University suggests that rather than ingesting turmeric directly as a supplement, adding it to food and drinks may have more of an effect supplement because adding fat or heating it up could potentially make the “active ingredients more soluble.”

As curcumin is not well-absorbed by the body, a sprinkle of black pepper (just 1/20th of a teaspoon) can to enhance curcumin absorption by over 2,000%.

Consumption likely safe, but further research needed

An estimated 150 curcumin studies are under way to probe the effects of turmeric (alone or in combination with other drugs) on cancer, heart disease, diabetes and dementia. While any meaningful clinical effects are far from proven, at least the trials have a scientific foundation.

Prior to this, preliminary findings from animal and other laboratory studies suggest that a chemical found in turmeric known as curcumin may have anti-inflammatory, anticancer, and antioxidant properties. This current evidence in human volunteers serves to further that hypothesis, although it is far from conclusive.

Further confirmatory experiments and studies will inevitably need to be executed as with any new findings. While there appears to be little risk or harm from consumption of turmeric, doctors should remain mindful in ‘prescribing’ this element of complementary medicine as part of their therapeutic remedies until the official labelling of its benefits are on board. MIMS

Read more:
Top 8 dietary advice to follow as your new year’s resolution
Iron fish swimming its way to fight anaemia
Nurses, here are eight ways to get more out of your food