Turmeric vs. curcumin: What's the difference?

Turmeric vs curcumin: Is curcumin the same as turmeric?

In our daily lives, the terms turmeric and curcumin are often used interchangeably, but there are significant differences between the two. In order to fully comprehend these differences, let's embark on a journey exploring turmeric vs. curcumin, two natural wonders.

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Is curcumin the same as turmeric?

In essence, curcumin and turmeric are closely related, but they serve different roles. Turmeric is a spice often used in cooking, while curcumin is the active compound within turmeric that holds many of its potential health benefits. 

What is turmeric? 

Scientifically known as Curcuma longa, turmeric has a rich history of use in India and Southeast Asia for thousands of years. Belonging to the ginger family, turmeric is derived from the ground-up rhizome of the turmeric plant. Its vibrant yellow color and distinct flavor have made it a staple in traditional cooking, adding both depth and earthiness to a variety of dishes. Nowadays, not only is turmeric extensively used for its distinctive flavor in curries and sauces, but it is also employed for its vibrant coloring in mustards and textiles. 

However, turmeric's significance extends far beyond the culinary realm. Ancient Ayurvedic texts dating back to 250 B.C. documented the use of turmeric as a medicinal herb. In these texts, turmeric was described as a powerful remedy for a wide range of ailments, including digestive issues, skin problems, joint pain, and even as a general tonic for overall health and well-being.

Today, turmeric continues to be regarded for its researched and potential health benefits — which largely stem from curcumin, a powerful bioactive compound found within turmeric. Despite only accounting for around 2-5% of the spice's composition, curcumin plays a vital role in determining turmeric's color, flavor, and many of its acclaimed health benefits, which we’ll summarize later in this article.

(See, as well, our detailed report on Turmeric: Eden’s ingredient spotlight, which delves into the research supporting benefits of the natural spice as well as in the dietary supplement, Eden’s, which contains a source of turmeric together with other, complimentary polyphenols, prebiotics and probiotics.)

3-in-1 Synbiotic Superblend

Nutritional value and health benefits of turmeric

Aside from its curcumin component (see below), turmeric also contains iron, manganese, vitamin B6, potassium, vitamin C, and fiber. However, since as a food turmeric is largely used as a spice, or flavoring additive, it’s not likely to be consumed in large enough quantities, in any given meal, to be considered a major source of these nutrients. 

On the other hand, in supplement form, the compound remaining after extraction of curcumin, which is called “spent turmeric,” is rich in dietary fiber, and some studies have shown that it possesses biologic activities which could prove favorable for improving the complications of many diseases, including diabetes — promising the potential to be used as a food or dietary supplement.

What is curcumin?

The compound called curcumin, found in (and extracted from) the spice turmeric, has been researched for a long list of potential health-promoting properties — including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiproliferative, antiangiogenic, antidiarrheal, and anticancer benefits, among others. Considered a polyphenol, which is a type of phytochemical, curcumin’s health benefits relate largely to the first two of these general properties, which are interrelated and have broad health implications:

  1. Antioxidant effects: Oxidative damage (or stress) is closely related to inflammatory processes (see property no. 2, below) and is caused by an imbalance between free radicals and the body's antioxidant defenses. Curcumin, with its unique chemical structure, is able to neutralize free radicals and boost the activity of the body's own antioxidant enzymes. It does so by reducing what’s known as reactive oxygen species (ROS) production, due primarily to its effect on nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADPH) oxidase. In short, the antioxidant action of curcumin helps protect cells from oxidative damage and so reduces inflammation.

  2. Anti-inflammatory effects: Both turmeric and curcumin have been studied for their potential anti-inflammatory properties. Inflammation is a necessary biological response to injury or illness, but chronic inflammation can lead to numerous health complications. Researchers have found that curcumin, the active compound in turmeric, may inhibit certain molecules known to play major roles in inflammation. For example, clinical trials have shown that curcumin can reduce inflammatory mediators and significantly improve plasma levels of C‐reactive protein (CRP) and tumor necrosis factor (TNF). C-reactive protein, made by the liver, increases in response to inflammation and so is a sensitive marker for underlying inflammation and risk for cardiovascular disease in apparently healthy individuals. It has also been linked to increased cardiovascular risk in people with T2D.

Health benefits of curcumin

The implications of curcumin’s aforementioned antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as other beneficial properties, are numerous and complex as they relate to specific disease states.  Currently, the use of curcumin alone in the treatment of diseases is limited, but it has achieved good results as an adjuvant therapy, possibly because of the synergistic effect of curcumin when used in combination with other therapies (including pharmaceuticals). Summing up some of the most pertinent and promising impacts, curcumin in various formulations:

  • Reduces joint inflammation and alleviates pain symptoms in most arthritis diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and osteoarthritis.
  • Alleviates symptoms of intestinal diseases, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Curcumin is also helpful as a safe and effective adjunct therapy for patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), although it is not considered a frontline treatment due to the lack of unified standards for administration form, administration method, dosage and model selection indexes, as well as the limited bioavailability of curcumin.

Promising impacts associated with curcumin, but from research findings still considered preliminary, include the following: 

  • May attenuate several aspects of metabolic syndrome (MetS) by improving insulin sensitivity, suppressing adipogenesis, and reducing elevated blood pressure, inflammation, and oxidative stress. (Learn more: What is metabolic health?) In addition, there is evidence that curcuminoids modulate the expression of genes and the activity of enzymes involved in lipoprotein metabolism that lead to a reduction in plasma triglycerides and cholesterol and elevate HDL-C (the “good cholesterol”) concentrations. 
  • May ameliorate diabetic vascular inflammation: By decreasing ROS overproduction, reducing leukocyte-endothelium interaction, and inhibiting ICAM-1 and NOX2 expression, curcumin has demonstrated potential for reducing risks for cardiometabolic complications so prevalent among individuals with diabetes. Studies have suggested that curcumin may have a positive impact on heart health by improving endothelial function, reducing inflammation, and lowering oxidative stress. 
  • May aid in mitigating certain other cardiovascular complications, such as blood clotting
  • May be effective for treating various types of oxidative-associated liver disorders, including nonalcoholic natty liver disease (NAFLD): Despite its low bioavailability, dietary curcumin has demonstrated, in a wide variety of preclinical studies, efficacy in the management of oxidative-associated liver diseases. To date, a few, small randomized clinical trials (RCTs) have also demonstrated significant efficacy, but more confirming research will be required. 
  • May exert anti-cancer impacts: Studies have shown that curcumin may inhibit the growth of cancer cells and even induce apoptosis, the programmed cell death of cancer cells.
  • May enhance brain health: Researchers have begun to explore the beneficial anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects of curcumin on neurological disorders such as dementia, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and Huntington’s disease. Clinical studies have found that curcumin may increase levels of a protein called brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), associated with delaying or even improving neurological diseases, memory and cognitive abilities. However, most studies have been performed on animals, and much more research is needed in this area. 

Other disease states where curcumin shows promise, but where either the level of evidence is low and/or the sample sizes small, include psoriasis, depression, and atherosclerosis.

Natural sources vs. dietary supplements

While curcumin holds great potential, it is worth noting that the bioavailability (a key to efficacy) from turmeric is limited when consumed on its own, as a spice. Combining turmeric with black pepper or fats, such as coconut oil, does enhance its absorption and so can help maximize its benefits. In particular, research indicates that piperine, the major active component of black pepper, when combined in a supplement complex with curcumin, has been shown to increase bioavailability by 2,000%.

To obtain enough curcumin for its health-promoting benefits, dietary supplements containing a concentrated form of this compound are available on the market. These supplements offer the advantage of delivering a larger dose of curcumin than one might achieve through diet alone. However, the composition of these supplements vary, and regulatory oversight of them is limited in comparison with the more rigorous evaluation required for a pharmaceutical medication to come to market. Learn more in How to buy supplements: A 3-step guide.

Eden's 3-in-1 Synbiotic Superblend contains — along with a complimentary selection of metabolically beneficial prebiotic fibers, probiotics, and several other polyphenols — a high-quality source of turmeric (a concentrated powder called "Curcuminoids") that is enhanced to improve absorption and clinical efficacy.  

Potential side effects and risks 

Curcumin has a long-established safety record. Nevertheless, some negative side effects (primarily diarrhea, headache, and nausea) have been reported. In addition, though uncommon, turmeric and curcumin can trigger allergic reactions in some individuals. Typical reactions might include skin rash or hives, shortness of breath, and anaphylaxis. It's always advisable to seek immediate medical attention if you experience any unusual symptoms after consuming turmeric or curcumin. Certain groups of individuals in the following categories should be especially cautious in taking turmeric supplements:

  • Pregnant or breastfeeding
  • Gallbladder disease
  • Bleeding disorders
  • Iron-deficiency
  • Gallbladder disease
  • Undergoing chemotherapy or radiation
  • Taking prescription medications
  • Allergic to plants in the Curcuma genus

Like any supplement, turmeric and curcumin can interact negatively with certain medications, such as anticoagulants and antiplatelet drugs. If you're considering incorporating these supplements into your routine, always consult with a healthcare professional first.

Lastly, some in vitro (lab) studies have shown that at certain concentrations and in certain environments, curcumin’s antioxidant properties could become overwhelmed by its “prooxidant properties” — indicating that it may begin to induce the oxidation of normal cell components, including DNA damage, leading to mutagenesis and undesirable effects. Clinical (in vivo) use of curcumin has not shown similar effects, but research in this realm is still ongoing.

Key takeaways

So now you know the difference between turmeric and curcumin. Turmeric and its key ingredient, the polyphenol curcumin, have a long list of health-promoting properties — including anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiproliferative, antiangiogenic, antidiarrheal, and anticancer benefits, among others. Health benefits especially for joint pain and gastrointestinal distress have been well-documented, and promising research is underway to determine the magnitude of curcumin’s efficacy for aiding in the treatment of metabolic disorders (including MetS and diabetes), cardiovascular diseases, liver diseases, neurodegenerative diseases, skin disorders, certain cancers, and certain mental illnesses, among other disease targets. 

Given the challenge of consuming enough turmeric as a spice, scientists have formulated turmeric and its key ingredient, curcumin, into dietary supplements. Eden's contains a carefully selected, tested, and dosed curcumin source, together with a menu of other health-promoting polyphenols, prebiotics, and probiotics.  

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