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Turmeric May Be Tasty, But It’s Not a Cure-All

New study shoots down the trendy “remedy”

(Steven Jackson via Flickr)
smithsonian.com

Over the last few years, all kinds of claims have popped up surrounding the supposed health benefits of turmeric—from losing weight and preventing baldness to treating cancer. But, as with most things, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.

These miracle claims are nothing new: the spice has long been a home remedy in parts of the world. Even today, some people in India apply the spice to fresh wounds and scabs in the hopes that it will spark a speedy recovery, Akshat Rathi reports for Quartz. But while thousands of studies and millions of dollars have gone into figuring out whether it has any potential to be used in drugs. All efforts so far have turned up short.

Now, a new study published in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry suggests research into turmeric’s medicinal properties will likely never work—because it doesn’t have any. And to make it worse curcumin, the chemical often cited as the source of turmeric’s benefits, commonly tricks drug screens into providing false positives, Monya Baker reports for Nature.

“Curcumin is a poster child for these promiscuous molecules that come up often in screens,” James Inglese, director of assay development and screening technology at the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, tells Baker. “A lot of people doing this kind of work aren’t technically aware of all the issues that this thing can cause.”

Curcumin belongs to a group of chemical compounds that researchers have dubbed PAINS (an acronym for pan-assay interference compounds), and it’s long been known as one of the worst of these frustrating chemicals. That’s because it registers false positives for medicinal effects in all sorts of tests, even though it is a compound that isn’t easily absorbed by the human body, Amy Wallace reports for United Press International.

It easily gets contaminated by other, more active compounds and even fluoresces under ultraviolet light—a common test to discern drug-protein interactions—makes it difficult, if not impossible, to say whether curcumin has medical benefits or simply is a victim of the placebo effect. Though some scientists say there is evidence that curcumin may contain other chemicals that do have medicinal properties, it’s extremely unlikely that it contains anything that can help the sheer variety of conditions that it purportedly cures, Wallace reports.

“Curcumin is a cautionary tale,” Michael Walters, a medicinal chemist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and lead study author tells Baker. Many remain unaware of these false-positive tendencies.

Though downing turmeric may be trendy, the fact is that it probably won’t have much effect on your health—but it adds a nice nutty flavor to your next meal.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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