Can a daily teaspoon of turmeric help prevent cancer?

For thousands of years turmeric has been used in Indian and Ayurvedic medicine to treat cuts, sprains and swelling. 32155740 - turmeric and turmeric powder on white background

Around the 1940’s, scientists worked out that the anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial benefits were down to curcumin – the pigment in turmeric responsible for it’s bright golden hue. So far so good.

Turmeric or curcumin?

The problem however, is harnessing the anti-inflammatory power of curcumin. By weight, turmeric is only 2-3% curcumin, and curcumin is very poorly absorbed.

This means that you’d need to consume around 20-30 teaspoons of turmeric to get what scientists believe is an effective anti-inflammatory dose of curcumin – some 200-500 mg two to four times daily.

Ultimately this means taking a curcumin supplement containing the concentrated dose, leaving powdered turmeric out in the cold. Or at least to one side.

As a dietitian, I’m all for the power of natural foods, including spices, but for anti-inflammatory benefits at least, curcumin supplements have been the smart choice.

New backing for turmeric

That doesn’t mean there’s no point in adding turmeric to your food though. An exciting new study, led by University College, London for the BBC series Trust Me I’m A Doctor found that a teaspoon of turmeric daily changed the expression of genes involved in predicting cancer risk.

In the study, 100 volunteers from North East England were split into three groups. One group was given a capsule containing 3.2 grams of turmeric (abut a teaspoon). A second group took a dummy capsule and the third group was asked to add a teaspoon of turmeric to their food every day.

After 6 weeks, they found that the group adding turmeric to their food had significant changes in the expression of genes linked with cancer, allergies and depression. What was interesting though is that these changes weren’t seen in the turmeric capsule group.

It’s not clear why, but the researchers think it might be to do with the way turmeric is absorbed when it’s heated, or mixed other foods or nutrients. The volunteers weren’t instructed on how to use the spice, so some added to drinks, others used in curries or sprinkled onto food. For example we know that it’s better absorbed when eaten with fatty foods like olive oil, avocado or fish.

We need more research, but it’s exciting to see evidence that simple adding turmeric to meals can have a positive effect. And this isn’t the first of its kind – in a 1990’s study of smokers; half a teaspoon of turmeric given daily for 30 days reduced the number of chemicals excreted in their urine.

Turmeric in the kitchen

Although it’s not conclusive, this research is good reason to add more turmeric to your diet.

The spice goes well with cinnamon and ginger and is great as a marinade for chicken, fish or pulses. You can also easily add to soups, stews and curries. Another favourite is  ‘golden milk’ – a popular traditional Indian drink. Mix half a teaspoon of turmeric with a cup of hot milk, a pinch of cinnamon and a small squeeze of honey.

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