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Turmeric is on a tear-but for how long?
As director of London-based New Nutrition Business, Julian Mellentin has made a name for himself as a savvy analyst of the headlines sweeping the global health-and-wellness marketplace. And while that entails keeping an eye on the broad swath of functional-ingredient goings-on, sometimes a trend so crowds his viewfinder that he just can’t get it out of his sights.
Such may be the case with turmeric-which, by Mellentin’s reckoning, is well-nigh inescapable. “In Sydney and Melbourne,” he says, “you can order a turmeric latte in any city-center cafÃ©, or buy a supermarket premix to take home.” In the States and Canada, he’s heard tales of dieticians instructing clients on the drink’s at-home preparation-should the turmeric bars and beverages for sale at local grocers not sate their cravings. And in London, Manchester, and Glasgow, he says, “You can now buy turmeric yogurt.” His conclusion: “Any company in the Western world that doesn’t have a product featuring turmeric in its new-product-development plans should think again. Turmeric is coming.”
In fact, it’s already here. When Innova Market Insights (Arnhem, The Netherlands) tallied recent food and beverage launches with a turmeric and/or curcumin health claim, it found the total grew by 79% globally from 2014 to 2015, with another 25% increase rolling in from 2015 to 2016, according to Lu Ann Williams, research manager at the firm.
Such numbers suggest descriptors like “meteoric,” “skyrocket,” and “phenomenon”-or, if you’re more cynically inclined, “bubble.” Which raises a reasonable question: With turmeric on such a tear, how long might its time in the sun last? And what, if anything, can brands do to keep the momentum going?
For a botanical whose history stretches back literally millennia, turmeric might seem an unlikely twenty-first-century sensation. Yet for three years running, it’s topped natural-channel ingredient sales, per the American Botanical Council (Austin, TX). As Stefan Gafner, PhD, the Council’s chief science officer, notes, mainstream awareness is finally catching up to what natural shoppers have long known.
“Interest in turmeric started a while ago,” he says, “but it often takes time for an ingredient to reach the critical mass of research data to attract attention.” And research data increasingly implicates turmeric in everything from weight management, cardiovascular support, and enhanced cognition to reduced gastrointestinal distress and joint pain.
But the latest studies focus less on turmeric itself than on a class of compounds called curcuminoids, which Shavon Jackson-Michel, ND, scientific and medical affairs, DolCas Biotech (Landing, NJ), labels turmeric’s “star constituents,” whose health-giving properties “are collectively important in any chronic-disease approach.”
The best known of these curcuminoids is curcumin, and though scientists once ascribed to it “the vast array” of turmeric’s benefits, says Shaheen Majeed, marketing director, Sabinsa (East Windsor, NJ), following isolation of turmeric’s other curcuminoid constituents-namely, demethoxycurcumin (DMC) and bisdemethoxycurcumin (BDMC)-“several studies have demonstrated wide clinical applications for all three” as a group.
Scratching the Surface
So how do curcuminoids in general and curcumin in particular work? As Cheryl Myers, head of scientific affairs and education for EuroPharma (Green Bay, WI), explains, “Curcumin fights two major causes of disease”: inflammation and oxidation. “That means it naturally stops tumor formation, neural degeneration, muscle and arthritis pain, and many other conditions,” she says. “While there’s still much research to be done, a casual glance at curcumin’s many abilities shows why it’s so popular.”
But curcumin and its siblings aren’t all turmeric has going for it. The root’s essential oils, known as turmerones, assist curcuminoids’ transport and absorption into cells and synergistically enhance their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant action. In so doing, DolCas’s Jackson-Michel says, they diversify turmeric’s “healing profile.”
The upshot is that turmeric’s full suite of benefits “is more fully realized in the presence of turmerones,” she concludes. “But still, we believe there’s yet more to uncover. With more than 230 constituents known to exist in this rhizome, even these two highly active groups might just scratch the surface of the botanical’s therapeutic use.”
For now, at least, brands eager to ride the turmeric wave seem content to scratch the surface, building their formulations around the curcumin we know rather than the 230-something other compounds we’re still learning about. And they appear to have made the right choice, for “companies with branded curcumin products have definitely set in motion interest in turmeric’s profile and health properties,” says Nipen Lavingia, vice president of marketing at DolCas.
Further “elevating mainstream consciousness” about turmeric, he adds, is its “rich history” in India’s Ayurvedic tradition, as well as its current “cultural context” as a natural health ingredient. And perhaps most influential of all is the panoply of media that’s offered turmeric a platform in print, on screens, and online.
“I think media coverage has absolutely made a difference here,” says Myers, “much as it has with other natural ingredients, including St. John’s wort, aÃ§aÃ, maca, and green tea.” Indeed, when The Washington Post’s 2017 “In/Out List” elected turmeric an “In” for the first time since the list’s inception in 1978, the invitation came at the expense of matcha green tea, which, alas, got booted “Out.”
Timing has also worked in turmeric’s favor, Lavingia adds, as “its popularity has paralleled the increased use of the Internet for engaging through social media and accessing online purchasing.” A deep dive by Google Trends, the arm of the search giant that tracks search frequency, revealed interest in turmeric rising 56% from November 2015 to January 2016, while turmeric videos on YouTube garnered some 3.9 million views.
Natural Credibility, Strong Science
“The online discussion about turmeric’s benefits-from inflammation-fighting to better-looking skin-is surging,” Mellentin says. And while some claims may seem too good to be true, Mellentin is adamant: “Don’t disparage the science. Turmeric is one of the most researched food ingredients. It has excellent ‘naturally functional’ credentials, which have already proven to be the most powerful driver of growth.”
Innova’s Williams agrees. “Going back into the past to rediscover ‘old’ ingredients with inherent health appeal has been a significant food trend in recent years,” she says. Whether turning to chia or kale, “Consumers are looking more for natural health benefits in the products they buy, and being a traditional, natural ingredient powerhouse lets turmeric tick a lot of those boxes.”
Including the science one. Jackson-Michel points to 9,000-plus PubMed studies on curcumin to date, which in and of themselves may vault the compound into the “top-five most studied natural constituents ever,” she says.
Among recent research results are those suggesting a complementarity between curcuminoids and omega-3 fatty acids in which the two help “bring relief to conditions where inflammation plays a major role,” Majeed says. One such study1, in vitro, looked at the ability of curcuminoids and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) to halt protein degradation caused by the inflammatory cytokine tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α) and proteolysis-inducing factor (PIF), a compound associated with cancer-related muscle breakdown. Majeed points to two other animal studies2,3 demonstrating curcumin and EPA’s dual effectiveness in preventing muscle wasting; preventing and reversing weight loss; and improving quality of life in an experimental cancer model.
One study4 Gafner deems notable investigates how a curcumin-enriched diet might beneficially modulate colonic flora in mice. “Further research in this area may lead to a number of interesting findings,” he says. Already, Jackson-Michel notes, “Altered gut microbiology can persistently contribute to systemic inflammation and, thus, become an underlying factor in the development of chronic disease; recent evidence has connected gut health to other internal workings, including immune and mental health, and curcumin is known for its potent immune system activity and mental health benefits.”
Myers adds that the curcumin extract and turmeric essential oil in her company’s products appear in clinical research to reduce depression5 and anxiety symptoms in those with major depressive disorder. And she says that studies show it to be “an excellent adjunct therapy with conventional treatment for prostate6 cancer,” boosting the effect of radiotherapy by preserving and even increasing total antioxidant capacity.
Down to Specifics
Such results buoy Myers. “The science shows no sign of slowing down,” she says, adding that she receives links to anywhere from 20 to 30 new curcumin studies per week. “As long as we keep finding more positive data and proven clinical applications,” she says, “curcumin will continue to grow.”
But if there’s a cloud behind those silver linings, she and others suspect it’s the lingering confusion among consumers in distinguishing turmeric from the curcuminoids primarily responsible for its health benefits. Most major health research involves curcumin-not turmeric, which she says is only 2%–5% curcumin. “So someone taking a single capsule of turmeric per day will likely be quite disappointed if they’re seeing the health benefits attributed to curcumin,” she says. And to those hoping to get therapeutic levels through diet alone, she says this: “If you’ve been eating a standard Western diet for most of your life, trying to achieve medicinal levels of curcumin by eating more curry is just not going to cut it.”
Her concerns underscore the duty of turmeric brands-or brands marketing any functional ingredient, for that matter-to stay on top of both the medium and the message. As Gafner says, “It may not matter to the consumer whether it’s curcumin or another turmeric component that provides the benefit. But for a responsible manufacturer, it’s very important to understand which components in an ingredient are responsible for a health benefit to ensure that this benefit can be provided on a continuing basis.”
Majeed adds that formulations-“to preserve and protect the integrity of curcumin”-deserve none other than high-quality natural turmeric inputs, and in quantities that jive with what research shows is beneficial. “Maintaining product integrity is key to creating and keeping customer loyalty,” he says.
So, too, is continuing science. Sustained interest in turmeric, curcuminoids, or both will be a direct consequence of “how avidly the private and academic sectors pursue further study into the rhizome,” Lavingia concludes. And though the market is already crowded, “brands that succeed will be inquisitive and innovative,” plumbing new findings “better to understand and apply turmeric’s rich medicinal history to today’s medicinal woes,” he says. If they play those cards right, “the consensus seems to give this golden spice at least another five strong years.”