Turmeric absorption -- and tips to enhance its activity

A surprising fact is that turmeric is poorly absorbed when eaten alone

A surprising fact is that turmeric is poorly absorbed when eaten alone

A surprising fact is that turmeric is poorly absorbed when eaten alone. Here's how you'll get the most from this golden wonder

There’s wisdom in old traditions that modern science helps us appreciate even more. The way foods combine and interact with one another affects not only the taste of the food, but also how beneficial compounds in it are absorbed, and how effective they’ll be.

The typical Mexican combination of black beans with a touch of lime tastes great, and vitamin C in citrus also helps the absorption of plant, non-heme iron in the beans. Likewise, a Mediterranean tomato sauce recipe combines tomatoes with some olive oil – turns out both heat and oil activate lycopene, a potential disease-fighting substance .

Turmeric, the powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, is traditionally enjoyed incorporated in food, and combined with other spices.  In India, turmeric is prepared with some black pepper and fat. Turmeric is a major ingredient in Indian curry powders which usually also contain curry leaf, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, and sometimes also cinnamon, cloves, mustard seed, cardamom, nutmeg and, of course, pepper.

Turns out traditional practice cracked the secret of making turmeric into an effective substance.

Boosting turmeric’s absorption

Black pepper is a friend

A surprising fact is that turmeric is poorly absorbed when eaten alone. Put in plain terms, most of the turmeric will pass through your gastrointestinal tract and end up excreted on the other end, rather than be absorbed and showing up in your blood, where it could be transported to our organ system, where it can employ its anti-inflammatory effect.

But if eaten with just a small amount of piperine, the active ingredient in black pepper (Piper nigrum), the active ingredient in black pepper, the absorption shot up by 2000 percent in human studies! Animal studies show that intestinal absorption of turmeric was higher when administered together with piperine, and it stayed significantly longer in body tissues, appearing also in the brain for days after ingestion.

And so is a little bit of fat

A traditional curry sauce combines turmeric with other spices, and also contains fat. Ayurvedic practive and South Asian preparations mix turmeric powder with ghee, coconut milk or other milks. Turns out this combination isn’t just tasty, it’s also smart: absorption of turmeric is much better in a fatty environment. Studies show that absorption can increase many fold depending on the what surrounds the turmeric in the gut, and fatty foods intensify uptake.

Turmeric is most beneficial as part of a normal diet

Turmeric shows a lot of potential. The active ingredients in it have been shown to exhibit anti- inflammatory activity, and inflammation has been shown to play a role in most chronic diseases, including heart disease, Alzheimer’s, autoimmune disease and cancer. Used as a food, it is incredibly safe, and has been enjoyed and employed by millions over centuries.

Turmeric has recently become part of a wellness craze, and people have taken things to the extreme, even injecting turmeric intravenously in order to guarantee absorption.

This is a very dangerous idea. Turmeric is safest and most beneficial – and definitely most enjoyable -- as a food. No tablets or supplements are needed, either.

So if you want to enjoy turmeric health properties, at this point in the state of the science, it’s better to stick to what grandma (or at least an Indian grandma) used to do.

Making turmeric work for you

I used to struggle with including turmeric in my dishes. Some of my eaters were fussy. Many of the turmeric-including dishes were decidedly ethnic, and using turmeric often made dishes a bit repetitive in taste and feel. One of my kids complained that turmeric taste slightly medicinal.

I experimented with combinations for many years, with the goal of creating a spice mix that delivers on taste and on healthfulness, and, on my wish list was also the elusive vegan umami, the depth and deliciousness typically hard to achieve with just plant-derived food.

Ayala’s Magic Spice is the result of this quest. In it, turmeric is combined for maximal absorption; it’s designed for use in foods – in recipes that contain some healthy fats. It’s a flavor booster, with no overpowering notes, and best of all, it contains antioxidants, B12, iron, whole protein and a whole host of nutrients, all from food itself.

Dr. Ayala