Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a plant belonging to the ginger family. It has been used in Ayurvedic health practices for thousands of years, but there is recent excitement in Western society about turmeric because of the various benefits it may have for supporting the body’s healthy structure and function.* It is therefore beneficial to know which compounds are useful, if they can be readily absorbed, and if the turmeric products available commercially contain the components we’re looking for. To answer these questions, let’s explore the science of turmeric.
The turmeric plant contains a variety of compounds. The majority of the plant is made up of water, proteins, carbohydrates, and fiber. Although they are present in much smaller percentages, the compounds that are responsible for most of the excitement surrounding turmeric are curcuminoids and turmerones. Curcuminoids have been used for their antioxidant properties as well as their ability to support a healthy inflammatory response within the body.1 However, curcuminoids are large, water-soluble molecules that do not readily absorb in the body. Turmerones are also supportive of the body’s normal inflammatory response as well as the function of the nervous system.2 Tumerones are tiny, fat-soluble molecules that readily absorb into the bloodstream.
Three Forms of Turmeric
We will discuss three different forms of turmeric, each with varying ratios of chemistry. These three forms are the botanical, the extract, and the essential oil.
The botanical form is the raw plant or plant parts, such as the root, stems, or leaves. The percentage of curcuminoids and turmerones in the botanical form is relatively small in comparison to the other components.
The second form is a CO2 extract of Turmeric. CO2 extraction is a process in which much more of the curcuminoids end up in the final product; however, the turmerone content is not much higher than in the botanical. Unfortunately, even though turmeric extract contains higher amounts of curcuminoids, your body isn’t capable of absorbing them without assistance. You may have heard that consuming black pepper along with turmeric facilitates the absorption of curcuminoids. This is due to the piperine in black pepper, which inhibits certain metabolizing enzymes in the liver to ease absorption. However, keep in mind that Black Pepper essential oil contains only the volatile aromatic compounds, not the piperine. Therefore, Black Pepper essential oil will not help with absorption of curcuminiods
Turmeric essential oil is extracted through steam distillation and is composed mostly of turmerones. The larger curcuminoid molecules don’t make it through the distillation process. Consequently, we should expect to see a miniscule amount of curcuminoids in the final product of a high quality essential oil.
For maximum benefit, it is useful to consume forms of turmeric with the highest levels of curcuminoids and turmerones in their most bioavailable forms. To put it simply, if you use the botanical, you probably won’t get as much of the curcuminoids and turmerones as you’re looking for. If you use the CO2 extract, you still don’t get enough turmerones and you’ll have to find a way to improve absorption of curcuminoids into the body. If you use the essential oil, you won’t get any curcuminoids, but you’ll gain access to a relatively high amount of turmerones. With all these different options it can be difficult to find one place for your turmeric products.