Tired of turmeric latte sipping hipsters and health nuts lauding the anecdotal health benefits of this legendary golden spice, the Mainstream Media strikes back with the anvil of hard Science (capital “S”)…
Forbes just published an op-ed titled, “Everybody Needs To Stop With This Turmeric Molecule,” intended to warn consumers and scientists alike that curcumin (the primary polyphenol in turmeric), and presumably turmeric itself, is a “waste of time and money.”
What is their seeming unequivocal conclusion based on? According to the assessment of Forbes writer Sam Leminick, a new paper published in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry entitled, The Essential Medicinal Chemistry of Curcumin, reveals:
“…there’s really no evidence that curcumin (and a couple related compounds lumped in for convenience) does anything for you health-wise.”
What Mr. Leminick is referring here to as “evidence,” or the lack thereof, is the randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, human clinical trial (RCT). The RCT has become the epistemiological holy grail of Scientism and the Medical Monotheism it informs. In this belief system, it doesn’t matter if something has had cross-cultural validation as a healing agent, even after thousands of years of safe human use; nor does it matter if you personally have experienced (N-of-1) direct and measurable health benefits from consuming it. This is essentially a pyramidal control system: the RCT situated on top, and your first-hand experience and associated “anecdotal claims” on bottom, completely worthless. What’s considered ‘really real’ is what has been externally validated through the RCT. Also worthless within this view are the thousands of cell (in vitro) and animal (in vivo) studies that exist indicating therapeutic properties may exist. This Scientism-based belief system is so powerful and all-consuming that sometimes I describe it as the ‘Religion that devours all others.’
This ideology also conveniently ignores the political realities that influence what research is conducted, and how exactly research findings are published. In today’s climate, where natural medicines are reflexively disparaged and chemical medicines are glorified, there is a disproportionate amount of pro-drug and anti-natural compound research being published. But when the bias happens at the ground level, it’s worse than “cherry picking”; it’s as if the very trees selected for the cherry orchard were genetically modified at the outset to produce only one pre-specified type of publication crop. There is also the fact that capital simply does not flow into research into non-patentable natural substances because they provide a poor ROI, with billions of dollars needed in the case of FDA drug approval.
Considering this, we are not suprised to find research that disparages turmeric being reported on and amplified by a publication like Forbes whose primary funders include major pharamceutical companies.
In reality, however, the new paper is not itself as disparaging as Leminick interprets. Even in some of the archetypal examples presented of curcumin’s presumed failure to provide health benefits in the clinical research setting, the researchers refer to some positive findings. For instance, they cite a phase II study on the use of curcuminoids in patients with advanced pancreatic cancer (the most lethal cancer type) in 2008. They reported on patients taking 8 grams/day orally for at least 8 weeks. Two individuals experienced relatively remarkable improvements:
“one patient had remained stable for more than 18 months and another single patient had a brief but marked 73% reduction in tumor size that lasted one month. One other patient remained enrolled in the study for approximately eight months with “stable weight and a feeling of well-being, albeit with progression in non-target lesions”…. No treatment-related toxic effects were reported.”
In juxtaposition to conventional chemotherapy outcomes, where side effects are not only debilitating but sometimes lethal, this is highly promising and indicative that curcumin does, in fact, have potentially profound therapeutic value.
I actually agree with one of the paper’s primary criticisms, namely, that the curcumin molecule itself may not be the nutraceutical “magic bullet” many believe it is. We see an increasingly profitable “nutraceutical” industry mimic the language and propietary aspirations of the pharmaceutical industry, focusing on ways to improve on nature and capitalize on unique, pseudo-patented or actually patented formulations. Certainly, I prefer their formulations over chemically-based ones. The point, however, is culinary applications are often as powerful, if not more powerful — even if far less proprietary and profitable.
Again, I agree that we must disabuse ourselves of the concept that turmeric’s health benefits can be reduced to only one of its phytocompounds — curcumin, aromatic-tumerones, or otherwise — and that the conventional drug development, discovery, and clinical testing validation models can be appropriately applied to what are essentially food compounds. Chemists (and the herbalists and nutritionists that favor a reductionistic/materialistic approach), by virtue of their training, overlook the fact that food and herbs have informational properties, and therefore can not be treated solely as mechanical strings of atoms and molecules (“chemicals”) interacting through externally related surfaces within the body-machine.
As my colleague Vic Shayne has articulated so eloquently in his writings, when you isolate out a singular constituent of a whole food, it will now behave less like a nutrient and more like a chemical. In other words, the part can not be extracted from the whole without its functional properties be altered. Within this view, natural compounds such as curcumin are as much semiotic/informational as material in nature, and they depend entirely oncontext for their “meaning,” or biological value. And so, in biological systems, as with human language: “A text without a context is a pretext.” In other words, if you take curcumin out of the complex background chemistries of the whole turmeric plant, including its relationship to the microbiota in the gut, you are no longer talking about its real-world activity.
You can’t, then, say that because you have not found the healing power of the whole in the part, that the healing power of the whole does not exist. This is essentially the fatal flaw of so-called ‘medicinal chemistry.’ Their fundamentally reductionistic and materialistic approaches degrade their object of study to the point of it no longer being recognizable as a living thing.
And so, when Sam Leminick opines that curcumin is basically a “talented pharmaceutical con artist,” he is guilty of projecting the inherently reductionistic pharmaceutical model of validation onto a substance that is entirely refractory to it. Each and every component of turmeric — its hundreds of interwoven constituents, from fiber, to water, to polyphenols, to aromatic compounds — all participate together in a synergy infinitely more complex than what is afforded to the myopic gaze of conventional chemists. Moreover, over the past twenty years, so much energy has been expended in creating synthetic curcumin analogs that can be patented, that it is no wonder that now a growing body of faux curcumin research continues to fail to produce experimental and clinical outcomes experienced by traditional cultures who used these herbs in their natural, or culturally-enhanced state as food and beverage preparations.
Unfortunately, this more nuanced perspective isn’t being practiced by today’s research community, and therefore it won’t inform mainstream media coverage on the topic anytime soon. The Forbes article joined a chorus of reporting on the topic, that runs diametrically opposed to a massive database of research on curcumin’s benefits, such as:
Huffington Post: Turmeric May Not Be A Wonder Spice After All
New York Magazine: Turmeric Might Not Have Magical Theraputic Powers After All
Counsel & Heal: Turmeric Isn’t The Cure-All Everyone Thought It Was
The pattern is clear. The mainstream media, who has pro-pharmaceutical advertisers to please, is looking for an excuse to throw natural remedies, and those who advocate for them, under the bus. Interestingly, Sam Leminick, is a paid contractor for the American Chemical Society, who owns the very Journal of Medicinal Chemistry the paper was published in. He added this conflict of interest disclosure to the bottom of the article to qualify his obviously biased perspective:
“Full disclosure: I’m a former employee of the American Chemical Society, which publishes Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, and a current contract writer for the society’s Reactions video series.”
As turmeric continues to gain popularity, from dietary supplements to lattes, and more people find ways to disburden themselves of pharmaceutically-driven disease management strategies, there will be significant pushback. In the meantime, we encourage those with an open mind to balance out the pre-masticated “news” on the shortcomings of natural alternatives with the primary literature we have gathered on the topic. Our database now has over 10,000 topics, with our curcumin database featuring over 2,200 promising studies on its health benefits. One study, with an axe to grind, shouldn’t negate the robust research on the topic, should it?
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