Once confined to the spice rack to add to curries or rice, turmeric is now turning up in everything from granola and kefir to crisps and flavoured nuts. Turmeric lattes (also known as golden lattes) must feature on the menu of any self-respecting hipster cafe, and it's also available as a supplement in your choice of capsules, tablets or gummies.
So, what's all the fuss about?
This yellow spice, prepared from the root of a plant called Curcuma longa, has widespread use in Indian and Southeast Asian cuisine. It has a warm, bitter taste and is frequently used to flavour or colour curries, rice and a range of other foods including mustards, butters and cheeses.
Turmeric – specifically, its extract curcumin – has also been used in both traditional Indian (Ayurvedic) and Chinese medicine to treat a range of ailments affecting the blood, liver, joints, immune system, and digestive tract. Not only is it thought to provide pain relief, it's touted as a potential cure for diabetes, heart disease and even cancer.
But does turmeric's golden reputation stand up to scrutiny? We take a look at the evidence behind the claims.
Although some of the research looks promising, there are issues worth considering before you fork out for curcumin supplements.
Poorly absorbed, unstable, reactive
One of the major limitations of curcumin use in humans is that it's poorly absorbed – the body quickly processes and excretes it. Curcumin's poor bioavailability, along with its reputation for being unstable and reactive (it can give false positives in drug screening tests), has prompted some researchers to warn that positive outcomes of trials suggesting a therapeutic effect may not necessarily be attributable to curcumin.
Chemists have found ways to enhance the bioavailability of curcumin, such as encapsulating it in lipids (fats) or combining it with piperine (the substance in black pepper that gives it flavour), although the improvement in bioavailability varies depending on the approach.
Definitive evidence lacking
Many of the clinical trials using curcumin have been conducted with small sample sizes and are short in duration. Even if it's a good quality randomised placebo controlled trial, a limited number of participants reduces the strength of the evidence. It's difficult to draw a conclusion on a beneficial dose and how long to take curcumin, or even the population group that can benefit the most from curcumin.
Authors of a number of the studies themselves suggest small sample sizes and other issues with methodology mean there isn't sufficient evidence to draw definitive conclusions about the effectiveness of curcumin and that more rigorous and larger studies are needed.
You can buy curcumin, the active extract of turmeric, in supplement form from various retailers including chemists and supermarkets. But the different products are hard to compare as their features and specifications vary widely.
- Active ingredient: the curcumin content of the supplements we've seen in supermarkets and chemists range from 36–1200mg per pill.
- Recommended dosage: this could be one, two or three pills a day.
- Bioavailability: this depends on whether or not they've been formulated for enhanced bioavailability, as well as the method (e.g. lipid encapsulated vs added piperine).
- Format: they're available as tablets, capsules and gummies.
- Price: the price per 1000mg curcumin – a typical daily dosage used in many of the clinical trials – ranges from 56 cents up to $16.66 in the supplements we've seen.
What about food and drinks with added turmeric?
Don't rely on eating the occasional handful of turmeric dusted nuts washed down with a turmeric tea to deliver a significant dose of curcumin that will benefit your health. Not only is the amount and bioavailability of curcumin a consideration, it also has a very short half-life. So unless you're consuming it regularly – as in a traditional Indian diet which might include turmeric twice a day – it's difficult to maintain helpful blood levels of curcumin.
Until more high-quality randomised controlled trials are conducted to confirm the benefits of curcumin supplementation, it's probably best to simply enjoy turmeric spice as part of a healthy, nutritious diet (and if you still fancy a turmeric latte, check out our recipe below to make your own at home).
Turmeric is generally thought to be safe. However, high doses or long-term use of turmeric may cause gastrointestinal problems including nausea or diarrhoea.
It's also advised not to take turmeric supplements when pregnant.
You'll find multiple recipes for turmeric lattes online, but here's one we quite like.
- 350mL milk (or your favourite alternative)
- ¼ tsp ground turmeric
- ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
- ¼ tsp ground ginger
- ½ tsp vanilla extract
- ½ tsp maple syrup
- grind of black pepper
- Combine ingredients in a saucepan and whisk constantly over a gentle heat.
- Once hot, pour into mugs and sprinkle with a little more cinnamon to serve.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.