Friday, November 14, 2014

The mythical "Elixir of Life"- Does it exist to day?

The mythical potion described in ancient times as "Elixir of Life" is supposed to bestow eternity to those who drink it but no one knows whether it really existed at any time in the long history of mankind. From time to time many foods and ancient plant preparations were described as health promoting substances though no adequate scientific evidence has surfaced to justify such a claim by any product made by man so far in a conclusive way. It is against such a background that Turmeric, the humble condiment grown and consumed in India widely, is being touted by some as some thing nearest to the hypothetical elixir of life. In spite of centuries of history behind turmeric which seemed to be in use as early as 5000 BC conclusive evidence still is wanted to really place it on a pedestal as the most versatile food adjunct with manifold health benefits attributed to it. Whether in Ayurvedic system of medicine or the Siddha system, turmeric really has an exalted position recommended to deal with many diseases that afflict humans. It is only during the last 3 decades that substantial scientific evidence has surfaced, at least in studies with animal system, about the remarkable properties of some of the bioactive compounds present in turmeric in ameliorating a number of diseases in a far better way than currently used allopathic drugs.   

Turmeric is a condiment closely associated with Indian curry preparations and practically every meal adjuncts prepared from vegetables contain turmeric in varying proportions. Since it has a deep yellow color which is imparted to the food prepared incorporating it with staining potential of the hand with which foods are eaten in India, western population generally avoid using turmeric in day to day preparations. Also the typical aromatic flavor imparted by turmeric is not so much relished in Western countries restricting its use severely in foods prepared by the population there. However accumulated scientific revelations during the last two decades are making the world realize, albeit slowly the remarkable health protecting capabilities of bioactive compounds present in turmeric.  But the million dollar question is whether the full health protection potential of turmeric will ever be realized if this valuable crop continues to be neglected except in a few countries like India.  

The broad class of substances coming under Curcuminoids which are present in turmeric to the extent of 4-5% have received riveted attention from scientists and health pundits because of their well established beneficial effect in human body. Curcumin which is the most predominant curcuminoid present in this plant material has become a darling of the health conscious community looking for natural plant derived antidotes, preferring them over synthetic drugs, for leading a disease free life. Curcumin is established as a substance with anti- inflammatory, antioxidant, antitumor, antibacterial and antiviral properties reflecting its versatility as an effective medical tool. Its major impact is in controlling inflammation through curtailing the proliferation of microphages believed to be linked to diseases like heart ailments, obesity, Crohn's diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel syndrome, diabetes, etc. Turmeric is also a source of volatile oils like Turmerone, Atlantone and Zingiberene of which the first mentioned one is receiving increasing attention as a unique chemical that promotes stem cell proliferation and differentiation in the brain. Unwinnable medical conditions  like strokes and Alzheimer's disease which involve degeneration of brain cells can now be treated with Turmerone which can be administered through nanoemulsions based on castor oil and polypropylene glycol. Though turmeric is the only source of these two bioactive compounds, a larger question that has been bothering scientists is how far the human intestine can utilize them when ingested along with food. However new approaches like nanotechnology provide solution for effective delivery of bioactive chemicals like turmerone and curcumin to any part of the body affected by diseases.

The humble rhizome which is cultivated in countries like India, China, Myanmar, Nigeria and Bangladesh are mostly consumed locally after cooking, drying and powdering. There is a limited export market, demand coming mainly from countries like UAE, USA and some few countries. Of the 1.1 million tons of dry turmeric produced world wide India accounts for about 80% and global export is rather limited to about 6000 tons, probably most of it to meet the demands from expatriate Indian population. Andhra Pradesh and Tamilnadu in India can be literally called the turmeric capitals as they account for more than 80% of the country's production. Turmeric industry got a bad name a few years ago after it was discovered that some unscrupulous traders were adulterating it with Lead chromate for boosting its color value but this has been severely dealt with in India, such a scare becoming a part of history. Even the practice of cooking in lime water before drying for intensifying the typical color of turmeric is not widely practiced with consumers demanding pure and natural turmeric for their culinary use.
World has been focussing on extraction of curcumin from turmeric as the excellent yellow color of this chemical is widely accepted as a natural colorant in many processed food products after the ban of many synthetic colors during the last few years. The oleoresin technology developed indigenously in India in nineteen sixties and seventies helped a lot in evolving a vibrant spice extraction industry that is supplying the world a variety of oleoresins for flavor concentrates for use by food industry across the world. Turmeric oleoresin containing high levels of curcumin can be hot pressed to recover most of the color fraction in a relatively clean condition. Modern Super critical carbon dioxide fluid extraction technology is also being used increasingly for separation of curcumin from turmeric. If the importance of curcumin is recognized by the pharma industry and health supplement sector, it is likely that emphasis may shift in the years to come from use as a food additive to more and more curcumin containing formulations. Already curcumin containing capsules are in the market which claim to reduce levels of oxidized cholesterol by 33%, total cholesterol by 63% and increase HDL cholesterol by 29% within a week of consuming them. Probably this is based on the scientific findings that curcumin prevents cholesterol oxidation and the role played by oxidized cholesterol in building up arterial plaques that lead to cardiovascular disease. 

Turmeric volatile oil (about 4.5%) is not that extensively studied as the resinous fraction containing curcumin but it is emerging as a treasure house of the turmerones of which aromatic turmerone is hogging the limelight currently. This is due to its unique properties like antivenom, antiplatelet, antioxidant and anticancer. Almost 40-50% of turmeric oil is made of turmerones and modern techniques like Supercritical Carbon dioxide extraction can yield turmerones of more than 85% purity. Probably if the medicinal properties of turmerones are established by more studies including clinical trials, the technology for producing higher purified preparations may emerge in future. But even with the present level of knowledge, turmeric can be a truly wonderful food material that cannot be ignored any more as just an Indian curry constituent.

The relatively stagnant production base of turmeric is a worrying factor and neither productivity targeted nor enrichment targeted agronomic studies are being done in India. It is time that agricultural research is directed towards improvement of varieties to increase the yield as well as to increase the oleoresin content. If world wide studies in different countries do confirm the "elixir of life" role for turmeric, global demand is bound to rise benefitting Indian growers significantly in future.


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