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Is Turmeric the new superfood?

Who would have thought that, one day, haldi would rule the Western world?

It is much more now than just the yellow stuff we use to add colour and flavour to our food. It is a global craze, much sought after because of haldi’s alleged properties as a superfood or miracle spice.


So you have turmeric lattes, turmeric teas, turmeric cookies, turmeric cold-pressed juices, turmeric shakes, turmeric spreads and God alone knows what else.


   And what is turmeric supposed to do?


   Well, it will improve your memory. It will lighten your mood. It will make your skin glow. It will help you live longer. It fights arthritis. It can delay the onset of diabetes. It can protect you from cancer. It will detoxify your liver.


   The list goes on and on. About the only claim not made for turmeric so far is that it will improve your sex life. But I am sure that is coming too.


   The turmeric fad has been raging in the West for about four years now and I reckon it has spread to the rest of the world in the course of this year. As is true of all such fads, it is hard to tell where it began or how. But it follows the standard pattern of all health fads.


1) Somebody starts throwing health data around and quoting so-called scientific studies to ‘prove’ that a particular food has miraculous properties.


2) Health freaks and what I call the ‘goji-berry set’– people who like to think they have discovered ancient remedies that modern medicine has suppressed – start talking to each other about the miracle ingredient.


3) The fad spreads from those who stock their larders with chia seeds and other such nonsense to the general public. Suddenly, everyone begins serving some kind of product based on the alleged superfood.


4) The ordinary person, outside of the goji-berry set, hears about the so-called miracle herb/food/spices and starts subscribing to the fad. By this stage, it is no longer necessary to explain why the superfood is so super. A herd mentality takes over. If everybody says it is so wonderful then, well, it must be!


5) The fad fades. A new superfood is discovered and a new fad begins. At present, we are at stage four where the herd mentality has set in. The advocates of turmeric no longer need to explain why it is supposed to be so good for you. All they have to do is to invoke the Mystic East, talk about Ayurveda and the Indian connection.


   This approach works less well in the actual Mystic East because we don’t regard haldi as a strange and formerly unknown magic ingredient. We have grown up eating it. We know that it is often used in Ayurveda. But Indians recognise that Ayurveda makes use of most herbs and spices in one way or the other. So we don’t treat any one spice as a superfood.


   Moreover, the Indian ayurvedic tradition is more scientific than the American fad tradition. So, we know that certain herbs are used to treat specific ailments or conditions. There are no works-for-everything superfoods or magic spices.


   As Marryam Reshii tells us in her definitive guide to Indian spices (The Flavour of Spice), turmeric is the most elemental of Indian spices – and yes, it is truly Indian, being native to South India. It has now spread all over the world but India is the main producer, growing 80 per cent of the world’s turmeric. Not only is it used in Ayurveda (it is believed to have antiseptic properties) it is also regarded as auspicious by Hindus.


   Oddly enough, Muslims in North India use much less turmeric. Reshii points out that turmeric hardly turns up in Avadhi cooking and when it does, it is used mainly for its colour. Kashmiri Muslims, on the other hand, use a lot of turmeric both for reasons of taste and health.


   Our view of haldi’s benefits differs from the West’s and is more limited. We value it but we do not ascribe miraculous properties to it. The American turmeric fad is based around scientific research allegedly carried out on turmeric. This can sound convincing till you realise that the scientists were not really testing turmeric. They were testing and researching curcumin, a compound found in turmeric.


"Basically, Ayurveda had it right. Haldi is good for you. But no, it is by no means an all-purpose superfood."

   Many of the claims made for curcumin are not without foundation. It does contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. And there is some research that suggests that people with Alzheimer’s can benefit from curcumin.


   But there are many problems with the ‘‘curcumin is good for you so you must have a turmeric latte’’ school of fad medicine.


   First of all, curcumin is remarkably hard for our bodies to absorb. We can use only 25 per cent of what we consume.


   Secondly, turmeric is not the same as curcumin. Yes, it is does contain curcumin. But only three per cent of turmeric is curcumin. Ninety-seven per cent is composed of other things.


   When you consider that only three per cent of turmeric is curcumin and that you will only absorb about 25 per cent of the curcumin you consume, you begin to wonder about the logic behind this fad.


   How much haldi do you need to eat to get the benefit of curcumin? And aren’t there more efficient ways of finding the antioxidants you need?


   These are questions that are never asked – let alone answered – by health faddists.


   Basically, Ayurveda had it right. Haldi is good for you. But no, it is by no means an all-purpose superfood.


   The only person who really benefits from that turmeric latte is the guy who makes money selling it to you.


   The curcumin fallacy should remind us of the dangers of believing all the fad health reporting you may read. Faddists will nearly always lie (or not know the truth) about the food they are promoting. They will pretend that turmeric was unknown in America till they discovered it. In fact, the food industry there has long used turmeric as a colourant. The colour you see on hot dog mustard comes from turmeric. But nobody who eats a lot of hot dogs has felt healthier because of all that turmeric!


   And then there is the quantity con. Faddists will deliberately confuse a small amount of a beneficial ingredient found in a food with the food itself. Let’s take chocolate for example. I like dark chocolate and I eat a little nearly every single day. But I eat it because I like the taste, not because it is good for my health.


   However, over the last two decades, we have been bombarded with reporting that tells us how chocolate is good for our bodies. Eat some chocolate, we are told, and you will avoid getting a heart attack.


   The chocolate-is-good-for-you campaign is based on the effects of chemicals called flavanols. Research suggests that flavanols are linked to reductions in blood pressure. Other research suggests that flavanols may possibly improve insulin sensitivity and help with your lipid profile.


   There are problems with some of the studies from which this research derives – they may have been funded by the chocolate industry – but all the reporting misses out on one vital distinction. These health benefits don’t come from chocolate. Even assuming that the studies are right, what is being studied is flavanol. Not chocolate.


   And yes, flavanol may indeed help with blood circulation. Except that chocolate is not all flavanol. In fact, flavanol is not even the main constituent of chocolate.


   The Observer (London) looked at the studies and discovered that the amount of chocolate you would have to consume to get the benefits of flavanol are massive. “For example, the blood pressure study involved participants getting an average of 670 mg of flavanols. Someone would need to consume about 12 standard bars of dark chocolate or about 50 bars of milk chocolate every day to get that much,” the paper reported.


   It is the same curcumin fallacy at work again. Yes, there are many compounds that may be good for us – curcumin and flavanols are examples – but we should never be misled into confusing them with actual foods because mostly, these foods contain too little of the beneficial compounds to make any difference.


   One study, for instance, showed that there may even be more flavanols in salami than in chocolate. But you don’t see anyone advising you to eat salami to live longer.


   Whenever people talk about superfoods, just use common sense. Do you know any particularly healthy people who subsist on a diet of chocolate cake? Are Indians, who have grown up on turmeric, the healthiest people in the world?


   The answers are self-evident. So throw out those goji berries, chia seeds and all the other so-called superfoods. And get a life.



Posted On: 28 Jul 2018 04:22 PM
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