Spice(s) of life?

Ancient peoples believed that turmeric, a ginger-family tuber root, was strong medicine, and in today’s chemistry parlance, scientists say that curcumin, an intensely-colored yellow/orange chemical in turmeric, is almost surely the source of its health benefit.

Yet very recently 120 double blind studies * demonstrated that curcumin is not a stable chemical and that a human body does not readily absorb it, which suggests that the magic currently ascribed to curcumin alone – easing or arresting perilous conditions and illnesses from psoriasis and cancer – may be more sorcery than science.

Nevertheless, no one is dismissing turmeric – or curcumin – as good medicine. Almost certainly, curcumin – perhaps along with further chemicals and compounds in turmeric – act and react with chemicals and compounds in other seasonings, spices and foods and may very well have a positive impact on human health. Could curcumin – alone or in combination with other chemicals in turmeric or other spices and/or foods –  be an anti-inflammatory agent, a benefit to mitochondria or cell walls or telomeres, for example? The synergies and impacts have yet to be discovered.

Meantime it appears that curcumin becomes much more bioavailable when combined with a fat. Scientists don’t yet know which element of the curcumin chemistry is coming alive in the presence of a fat but this phenomenon is well known, as carotenoids in carrots, for instance, blossom in goodness when combined with a bit of fat such as that in avocados.

Curcumin is in good company. Spices have been thought life saving for centuries, and now modern science, with the tools and techniques available to analyze impact at a genetic level, may show us whether – and if so why spices and long life go hand in hand.

* Kathryn M. Nelson, Jayme L. Dahlin, Jonathan Bisson, James Graham, Guido F. Pauli, Michael A. Walters. The Essential Medicinal Chemistry of CurcuminJournal of Medicinal Chemistry, 2017

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