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Now seems like a golden opportunity to talk about the positive health benefits of that turmeric in your morning latte.

Hosted by: Olivia Gordon

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[ intro ].

If you’ve spent any time on foodie Instagrams lately, you’re probably familiar with the vibrant yellow of Golden Lattes. These ‘lattes’ are usually made with some kind of nut milk and cinnamon, but they get their color from turmeric, a spice that’s been used in Indian cuisine and Ayurvedic medicine for millennia.

Touted as the next miracle “superfood”, turmeric has some bold health claims behind it, like that it can prevent or even cure cancer. And while there have been a surprisingly large number of studies conducted on the spice,. The dozens of supposed health benefits of turmeric certainly seem too good to be true.

People and even scientists claim it makes your skin glow; improves brain function; can prevent cancer, diabetes, and heart disease; and can even cure the incurables, from cancer to arthritis, Alzheimer’s, and more. But the studies underlying these claims haven’t really looked at the effects turmeric-heavy diets on health. When researchers study the quote “medicinal effects of turmeric”, most of the time, they’re actually using concentrated curcumin, an active ingredient in turmeric, or a mix of it and similar molecules collectively called curcuminoids.

These are polyphenols—compounds with multiple carbon rings—so they’re somewhat similar in structure to the “healthy” stuff in red wines. And they also happen to be highly reactive molecules, so in lab tests, they might seem like they can do a lot. But there’s a lot of contradictory science, too.

For example, it’s often said that curcumin has health benefits because it’s an antioxidant—a compound that binds to electron-hungry molecules called oxidants which can damage cells. But... some studies have found it acts as an anti-anti-oxidant, as it can worsen the damage of these compounds or even cause damage all by itself. Such conflicting findings tend to happen with highly reactive compounds because they don’t actually solve a specific biological problem—they interfere with the lab tests being run.

Biochemists have even come up with a special name for such annoying molecules: they’re classified as Pan Assay Interference Compounds or PAINS. And curcumin earned that cheeky description because despite over 10,000 studies on the stuff and more than 120 trials testing it for different medical conditions, there isn’t really conclusive evidence that adding turmeric to your diet does anything special. That’s partially because the vast majority of those trials were conducted in rats—and it can’t be said enough that rats aren’t people.

While they can be useful to see if something has potential, many rat cures completely fail in us. And the trials that have been conducted in people have had mixed results at best, and vary widely in methodology. Those that do suggest benefits often have critical design flaws, like that they aren’t double blinded clinical trials.

Those are the “gold standard” studies where neither the experimenter nor the participant knows whether they’re getting the drug or the placebo, to minimize the error that comes from bias. And most don’t use dietary turmeric, like in a latte—instead, they stick purified curcumin or curcuminoids in a capsule. The dose in that pill varies from study to study, from as low as 36 milligrams to as high as 8000 milligrams per day.

Curcuminoids make up anywhere from 1 to 4% of turmeric powder, so to get that same amount from lattes, well—let’s assume you use a generous teaspoon of ground turmeric to make your drink. That weighs a little over 2 grams and contains anywhere from 20 to 90 milligrams of curcuminoids. So to down 8000 milligrams, you’d have to drink between 88 and 400 lattes a day.

Every day. That’s a lot of cashew milk. And it’s not clear how much of the curcumin you eat actually gets into your bloodstream so that it can travel around and do the things people claim it does.

That’s because curcumin basically goes right through you. In animal studies, ingested curcumin quickly ends up excreted in feces—which is why you might have noticed your poops become nice and yellow after eating curry. And in people, researchers often fail to detect any curcumin in a person’s blood, even after they’ve consumed as much as 12 grams of the stuff.

While there are a few things you can do to increase how much curcumin your body absorbs, like eating pepper or fat at the same time, even then it’s really unclear if basically any of curcumin you eat stays around long enough to actually do anything. All that said, curcumin isn’t the only component of turmeric, so it’s possible that other things in the spice, either combined with curcumin or alone, could be good for you if eaten regularly as a part of a healthy diet. Probably not like, cure-your-cancer good for you, but maybe a little better than the same meals without the spice?

And the good news is that turmeric as a food, and even curcumin as a supplement, are thought to be pretty harmless. So you can sprinkle a large pinch of turmeric on your latte, and you probably won’t experience any negative side effects—other than maybe some yellow-tinted feces. And whether you’re boosting your health or not, at least you’ll get a pretty yellow.

Insta out of it. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow! If it always seems like you hear about how amazing some superfood is only to then hear it’s probably not amazing at all, you might like our episode on why nutrition science is super complex. [ outro ].