Curcumin is nearly a household name in 2019 and is available as both a standalone supplement and an ingredient within supplement blends. Curcumin is a polyphenol derived from turmeric (Curcuma longa): a botanical which, according to the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Biotechnical Information (NCBI), “aids in the management of oxidative and inflammatory conditions, metabolic syndrome, arthritis, anxiety, and hyperlipidemia.” It may also offer some defense against muscle inflammation and soreness, and cognitive decline.
Curcumin itself, “combined with enhancing agents” such as piperine, offers multiple health benefits, NCBI asserts. Indeed, turmeric has been used in Ayurvedic medicine in South Asia, especially, for centuries, for such conditions as rheumatism, fatigue, pain, and breathing problems.
In addition to its manufacture and branding for oral supplements, curcumin is produced for the cosmetics industry and as a food additive.
Conventional curcumin is grown in India, Asia, and Central America and is widely available. Organic extractions are available, too: But are they better? And to what extent is curcumin adulteration a problem? Ahead, we examine the challenges of producing organic curcumin and discuss issues curcumin processors and branders face.
The High Cost of “Organic”
“There’s a general movement, with spices as well as natural ingredients, toward organic and non-GMO. Those are powerful movements,” says Len Monheit, executive director of the Global Curcumin Association (GCA), which represents seven member companies. “The challenge comes when you’re trying to claim 95% curcuminoids on your curcumin supplement label,” Monheit explains. “Much of the research done is on curcumin at the 95%-curcuminoids level, and in order to get to that level, you need to do various extraction and concentrating steps. To do that with organics alone is really costly. So most of the products that are labeled ‘organic’ won’t claim 95% curcuminoids,” he continues.
Herbal-ingredient supplier and GCA founding member Sabinsa (East Windsor, NJ) points out that quantity is an issue with organics as well. Particularly in India, explains Shaheen Majeed, president worldwide, Sabinsa, significant challenges exist that limit the quantities of organic curcumin available.
“One of these is the proliferation of small farmers—as opposed to huge farms—who make agricultural decisions independently of each other,” Majeed explains. “These individual small farms may not be likely to band together to all follow the same agricultural practices, such as those for certified-organic farming, because of societal barriers. Organic material sourced in this kind of situation is significantly more expensive.” Corporate farming is the alternative, but limited availability of large plots of land in India is a problem, Majeed adds.
GCA’s Monheit continues, “It’s difficult to get an efficacious extraction at a tolerable price point because you need to use organic solvents, too, and those can be expensive as well.” As a result, “organic” on a curcumin label sometimes serves as a “halo, and nothing more,” he says.
Kristen Marshall of founding GCA member company Verdure Sciences (Noblesville, IN), which produces Longvida Optimized Curcumin, agrees with Monheit’s assessment and adds that an “organic” or “certified organic” claim does not make a product “inherently superior to other options on the shelf.” Organic turmeric extracts can yield high levels of curcuminoids, Marshall says, “but these extracts tend to then be offered at a much higher cost.” She continues, “Just because a product is ‘organic’ doesn’t mean it’s better, and, in fact, there’s a lot of confusion with the term organic and how it is interpreted by media, industry, and consumers.
“And just because a botanical is conventionally grown doesn’t mean it is or isn’t good quality,” she continues. “There are many farming programs, specifically with turmeric, that are controlled but don’t necessarily fall under the ‘certified organic program’ banner.”