Curcumin vs turmeric: What's the difference?

Turmeric is a versatile spice, one that's used in different spice blends around the world (think curry powder) and which has a reputation for being one of the healthiest spices out there. But if you've ever gone to pick up the capsule version of turmeric to use medicinally, you may have found yourself with a bottle of curcumin instead, or with a bottle of turmeric that says it includes curcumin, making you wonder — so what exactly is the difference between curcumin and turmeric? 

For starters, the easiest thing to remember is that turmeric is an ingredient used in food, either in its fresh root form or in its powdered spice form, and that can also be used medicinally (via Encyclopedia), while curcumin is generally exclusively reserved for the medicine cabinet. That being said, the two are very closely related (via Healthline).

The difference between turmeric and curcumin

That's because curcumin is actually a chemical compound that's derived from turmeric. It's kind of confusing because the scientific name of turmeric is Curcuma longa, but what you should remember is that while all turmeric contains curcumin, curcumin is just a small component of the spice called turmeric. 

Curcumin is a powerful antioxidant and is the most active and healthful element in turmeric (via Healthline). Curcumin is an anti-inflammatory, and in some lab tests, it has even been found to be effective in reducing the size of tumors and helping protect against high cholesterol and diabetes — and even more (via WebMD). 

However, turmeric only contains 2 to 8 percent curcumin by weight, so you'll often find capsules of curcumin, not turmeric, at the pharmacy. That's because in order to get any of the health benefits of turmeric from diet alone, you'd need to eat almost a full gram of turmeric a day. Instead, extracts of turmeric are made that have a concentrated curcumin content, and that's what you'll often see in different supplements. 

Curcumin supplements are often paired with piperine, a substance derived from black pepper, which helps the bloodstream absorb it, and it's also beneficial to take it with some sort of fatty food. 

If you don't want to buy curcumin capsules but want to absorb as much of it as possible from your diet alone, pair meals seasoned with turmeric with black pepper and some sort of healthy fat for maximum absorption.