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Healthy Or Hype Turmeric

Healthy or Hype? Turmeric

Turmeric seems to be everywhere these days. This signature spice that lends curries and mustards their distinct colour is now popping up in unlikely foods and beverages like golden spice lattes, hot chocolate, and even sodas.

And you can count on more foods adopting turmeric’s characteristic yellow-orange hue, as the turmeric food trend is a strong one. A recent Google food trend analysis ranks turmeric as the number 1 rising star, as interest in turmeric has grown significantly in a short period.

Source: Google internal data, August 2015-February 2016, United States
Source: Google internal data, August 2015-February 2016, United States

The Internet is a go-to source for information about food and health. But teasing out the evidence-based information from the hype is becoming increasingly more difficult.  Is the turmeric trend supported by the body of scientific evidence?

What Is Turmeric?

Turmeric and Turmeric powder on white background

Turmeric comes from the thick root of the turmeric plant: it looks a bit like a small ginger root, and cooks prepare it in a similar way to add a subtle earthy flavour and bright colour to dishes.  If you are new to cooking with turmeric, be aware that turmeric can stain hands, clothes, and even cooking utensils bright yellow orange (historically turmeric was a popular dye, and some use it as a dye today).   Most people are more familiar with turmeric ground to a golden powder, which is available in the spice isle of most grocery stores.

Health Claims

Recognized as an ancient home remedy in Asia, and commonplace in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, many believe that turmeric has medicinal properties.  A quick search reveals turmeric as a “cure-all.” The claims for turmeric’s healing properties are wide ranging — from improving cognitive function, cardiovascular function, and weight loss to fighting cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, arthritis, headaches, depression, digestive diseases, the common cold, and many more health conditions.  No wonder people are sprinkling turmeric on everything. . . (whether it tastes good or not).  Does this sound too good to be true?

Evidence

A large body of research has looked into turmeric and health, focusing on curcumin, a polyphenol compound thought to be responsible for turmeric’s potential therapeutic effects. Curcumin makes up only about 3-5% of turmeric.

Curcumin, the potential health-promoting compound, makes up only about 3-5% of turmeric
Curcumin is the potential health-promoting compound in turmeric

Preclinical studies suggested that curcumin’s anti-inflammatory action might help prevent or treat various chronic diseases.  Though promising, it is important to categorize this research as preliminary or hypothesis generating, as much of it is “in vitro” (conducted in test tubes) or in animals. Researchers have studied curcumin in humans, but results have been inconclusive. Also, best to interpret this research with caution as most studies had a small number of participants, short durations, and many did not compare curcumin to a placebo. Though we shouldn’t generalize conclusions from these small-scale studies, their findings can inform larger scale trials.

Another issue with research in humans is that the body doesn’t absorb regular curcumin very well:  you can consume a lot of it, but very little reaches the blood or tissues where it can have a clinical effect.  Research shows that rodents absorb little (<1%) of the curcumin they consume. However, one line of research is investigating ways to improve absorption: for example, some studies suggest that black pepper boosts the bioavailability of curcumin.

So, turmeric contains <5% of curcumin, and most of this tiny amount isn’t bioavailable . . . why are so many stretching the culinary uses of this standard curry spice to desserts and convincing themselves that turmeric flavoured smoothies “taste good,” or are even “good for you?”Turmeric Smoothie Healthy

It’s too easy to be persuaded of turmeric’s potential healing powers. Those championing turmeric’s benefits are citing individual studies without proper scientific context.  Critically evaluating the available research is a challenge and requires substantial expertise. Luckily, a new comprehensive review published in January 2017 has done just that. Investigators at the University of Minnesota reviewed the evidence for curcumin, which included thousands of studies and over 120 clinical trials.  The authors raise important questions about the research and comment that curcumin’s health benefits are “much ado about nothing.”

There is no rigorous human study (double-blinded, placebo controlled clinical trial) showing benefit to turmeric.  Another serious problem overlooked by many is that curcumin’s chemical structure is unstable and can produce “false hits” in studies – i.e., showing that it is acting on a disease-causing protein, when it really isn’t.

What about Curcumin Supplements?

Are concentrated supplements of turmeric’s potential beneficial compound (curcumin) a good choice?  It seems many North Americans think so, as the market for curcumin is large (US$20 million in 2014) and growing.  And marketing by the likes of Dr Oz, Dr Hyman, Dr Mercola, or the Food Babe always persuades many. Curcumin supplements are likely a waste of money, as the recent comprehensive research review shows that they lack sufficient evidence of efficacy.Curumin Supplements Scientific Evidence

In general, you should be wary of all dietary supplements and their claims. The supplement industry is unregulated (which means questionable dosage, efficacy, and safety), but clever marketing manages to persuade many.

Bottom Line

Although many studies have investigated turmeric/curcumin, and some have shown promise, at this point these findings aren’t good enough evidence to suggest that consuming turmeric improves any health condition.  It’s important to consider the preliminary nature of the research and recent review questioning of curcumin’s biological activity. Turmeric is certainly not a cure-all panacea as some have touted.  More research may help uncover specific benefits to curcumin or other compounds in turmeric.

Typical North Indian spicy dish or cuisine called Chana Masala
Using turmeric in healthful dishes is a great idea!

But cooking with spices like turmeric is a great idea.  These plant-based seasonings can flavour food deliciously without the need for excess salt or fat.  And looking for recipes featuring turmeric may help you cook more and inspire you to prepare healthful dishes.  But even if effective, turmeric is a small-player for promoting health and preventing disease: better to focus efforts on eating a good diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and getting enough physical activity, measures that have proven benefits for health and well-being.

Healthy or Hype Series

More Healthy or Hype Resources at this link.

Healthy Or Hype General

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This Week in Food, Health, and Fitness

This week, read about the Food Babe, the war on wheat, selling the fantasy of high protein everything, impressive graphics of vaccine effectiveness, training your brain to run faster,  a scandalously bad article on HPV vaccines, and more.

The Food Babe Way is Out!

Unfortunately this book gives Vani Hari (aka the “Food Babe”) another platform to preach misleading health and medical advice.

Vani_Hari_from_Charlotte_Video_ProjectWhy is she so popular, and why would anyone follow her advice?  Hari has a poor grasp of science, and doesn’t understand peer-reviewed research or intricacies of the chemicals she vilifies.  BUT . . .  she preys on people’s fears, is good at marketing, and certainly knows how to work social media. Unfortunately Hari’s influence in growing, as she exploits the scientific ignorance of her web activist group of “Food Babe Army” followers.

Hari’s campaign to eat and live fresh, natural, and chemical-free does sound appealing and health promoting.  Glaring problems are that she distorts facts, and misleads her followers by putting all chemicals on the same platform.

Chemicals can be confusing!  But don’t let uninformed people like the Food Babe explain them to you.  Sense About Science produced this excellent guide that looks at common misconceptions about what chemicals are and what they do.  Here is one of their graphics that illustrates a basic but very important concept that eludes the Food Babe.

DoseMakesPoison2

More about the Food Babe:

The War on Wheat

Tune into CBC’s Fifth Estate on February 20th, to see reporter Mike Kelly investigate the anti-wheat fad.  ​He’ll be interviewing several experts, including Yoni Freedhoff, Timothy Caufield, and McGill’s Joe Schwartz.

Selling the Fantasy of High Protein Everything

A look at Fairlife, Coca-Cola’s new hyper-fortified milk. Fairlife has 50% more protein, 50% less sugar and 30% more calcium than typical milk, and is lactose free.  The Atlantic article notes how Coke is relying on these two food trends to sell Fairlife: (1) people think they need more protein; and (2) many people think they are intolerant to some food components (e.g., lactore, gluten).  Although recent research has helped us learn more about protein’s role in weight loss and muscle synthesis, the truth is that most people are getting more than enough protein in their overall diets, and consuming more than they need likely won’t yield health benefits. (The Atlantic)

Although it’s true that most people get enough protein, some groups (e.g. the elderly, athletes) may need more protein, and a product like this might be useful for them (if they don’t mind paying twice as much as regular milk!).  For example, protein distribution throughout the day is important, and many people lack protein at breakfast: swapping this milk for regular milk might help reach a higher protein intake for this meal. Of course, you don’t need special milk to boost your protein. Have a look at these common foods, that will help you meet your protein needs (if you’re unsure of your protein needs, read this article).

HowMuchProtein (640x480)More Links of Interest This Week:

  •  Impressive graphics of the impact of vaccines on infectious diseases in the 20th Century (Wall St Journal). Here is an example for measles, but there are equally impressive figures for Hepatitis A, Mumps, Whooping Cough, Polio, Rubella, and Smallpox).

3 Ingredient Granola (640x427)Easy Recipe!

Simple Peanut Maple Granola.
Requires just 3 wonderful ingredients, and a great trick to maximize nutrition.

See More Issues of This Week in Food,
Health, and Fitness

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Myths and Misconceptions about Healthy Eating

I’ve started to list some of the more popular myths and misconceptions below.

Avoiding sources of misinformation will help you steer clear of erroneous nutrition and health information.  You can find some popular sources of misinformation at these links:

Popular Myths & Misconceptions

Almond Milk is Nutritious

healthyhypealmondmilkMost of the health claims for almond milk relate to the low calorie content, low saturated fat content, the benefits of almonds, or the added vitamins and minerals. If you delve deeper into the internet (not recommended!), you’ll find claims from preventing Alzheimer’s (because it has Vitamin D), to improving vision, or increasing muscle growth and healing. And, quite concerning is the claim that almond milk is a suitable substitute for infants (it definitely isn’t).

The term “almond milk” is misleading in terms of nutrition, because it doesn’t contain large amounts of the nutrients in almonds or milk (and technically “milk” should come from a mammary gland).  Many of the claims for almond milk relate to the health benefits of consuming almonds: given the meager amount of almonds in almond milk (about 4 almonds in 1 cup of almond milk), these health benefits are doubtful.  The beneficial nutrients that some almond milks boast on their labels (e.g., high in vitamin E, rich in calcium) are vitamins and minerals added during processing.

More Reading:

Carbohydrates Make Us Fat

Although some people successfully lose weight by restricting their carbohydrates, it is not carbohydrate intake that makes people fat.  The insulin-carbohydrate theory of obesity (suggesting that insulin drives fat storage and that eating low-carb helps people “burn” more fat than eating higher carb) is often cited as if it is fact, while there is considerable debate and new evidence suggesting that it is incorrect.

One problem with the “low carb” craze is lumping all carbohydrates into one category, equating legumes to candy. Low carb proponents claim that dietary guidelines promoted increased carbohydrate intake and “made people fat,” but there is no good evidence to support this claim.

Carbs Not Equal

More Reading:

Canola Oil is Bad for You

Myths about canola oil abound, including claims that is it toxic, unfit to eat, or damages the heart. This is fearmongering and not evidence-based.

Dairy/Milk is Pro-Inflammatory

milk_MSThough milk is not necessary for a healthy diet, there is a fair bit of pseudoscience surrounding claims that dairy is bad for us.  One such claim is that dairy is “pro-inflammatory.” A study just published in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition investigated evidence for the dairy-inflammation link.  Researchers reviewed 52 clinical trials conducted in humans, and found that consumption of dairy products, particular fermented products, is associated with anti-inflammatory properties, meaning that dairy consumption potentially reduces chronic inflammation and could benefit health.  (Critical Reviews in Food Science, August 2015).

Dietary Guidelines Are Making Us Fat and Sick

A common theme in many internet posts is how the dietary guidelines are outdated, and are making people fat or sick. Common criticisms include that the guidelines . . .

“caused the obesity and/or type 2 diabetes epidemic,”
“are not based on scientific evidence,”
“recommend carbohydrates/grains and they are the cause of obesity,”
“recommend a low-fat diet, and this made people fat,”
“made people replace fat with carbs, and they got fat.”
What’s lacking in these anti-guideline statements is good science.

A critical piece that is ignored in these claims is that most people weren’t following dietary guidelines. Read More >>

Gluten/Wheat/Grains are Bad for You

Slice of bread with Gluten text - Gluten Free diet concept
Slice of bread with Gluten text – Gluten Free diet concept

The gluten-free trend is a popular one, and many people have hopped on the bandwagon thinking it might improve their health, digestion, and athletic performance. People with celiac disease (about 1% of the population) need to absolutely avoid gluten because it damages their intestines; others believe they are “gluten sensitive,” which is a debatable condition that recent studies have called into question. Read More >>

More Reading:

“Natural” Sweeteners are Healthier Than Sugar

Health Halo Donut SmallThe health impact of consuming too much sugar is big news, and many people are looking for alternatives. What about so-called “natural” sweeteners? Food marketers want you to think they are healthier, and labels boasting terms like “naturally sweetened” or “honey-sweetened” are a common fixture.

This line of thinking has made its way into cookbooks, recipe blogs, and many home kitchens. One of my cake recipes wasn’t “healthy,” a reader commented, because it used sugar instead of a more “natural” sweetener like honey.

Despite marketing claims and labels that suggest otherwise, “natural” sweeteners are not better for you than refined sugar. Most people would be better off consuming less sugar from all sources, “natural” and refined.  Use “natural” sweeteners because you like their flavour or they work well in your cooking/baking.  But they are not better for you  nor will they improve your health.  Treat them as you would sugar and consume judiciously.  Read more >>

Saturated Fat is Good For You

butter photoYears of research have associated saturated fat with heart disease, some cancers, and diabetes.  But recent studies suggest that some types of saturated fats, such as “medium chain triglycerides” (MCTs) may not be as harmful to the heart as once thought. However, the evidence isn’t solid, and MCT’s influence on heart disease remains unclear.  Most of the research in question deals with saturated fat and heart health, and not the links between saturated fat and other chronic diseases (e.g., diabetes and cancer). Interpretation of the research can be challenging, as it’s impossible to look at saturated fat (or other nutrients) in isolation:  a diet that is low in saturated fat can be quite unhealthy if it contains too many refined starches and sugars.  We need more research, and keep in mind that just because something is not as bad as once thought, doesn’t mean it’s beneficial, especially in copious amounts.

Also, the most health protective diets (according to years of research) include vegetarian diets, the DASH diet,  and the Mediterranean diet, which are all low in saturated fat.

More Reading:

Foods or Food Avoidance with Questionable Health Claims

This list includes popular foods or supplements that don’t necessarily stand up to the hype or health claims behind them. This doesn’t mean they can’t be part of an overall healthy diet, but keep this in mind if you’re purchasing the items for health benefits.

Healthy or Hype Series

Other Questionable Health Claims . . .

Microwaves

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Page updated February 8,  2017

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