We have had a number of people emailing that they “keep reading that turmeric cannot be absorbed very well (or at all!) without the addition of black pepper or piperine”, and asking if this is true.
Indeed, all over the internet are claims that turmeric supplements must be consumed with pepper in order to absorb/ retain it in the body. These claims stem from a study in 1998 which showed that a 2g (2000mg) of curcumin (the active ingredient in turmeric) was metabolised very quickly by enzymes in the intestine and liver, making serum levels undetectable. However, if consumed with 20mg of piperine there was a 2000% increase in curcumin bioavailability1.
What this research shows is that taking high concentrations of curcumin on an empty stomach requires the addition of piperine in order for the curcumin to be bioavailable. To put this into perspective of a food and not extracts, you would need to be consuming around 80g of turmeric to have this kind of curcumin dosage. Although the words ‘curcumin’ and ‘turmeric’ are interchanged in a lot of websites, there is a big difference between the two, and its worth knowing the pros and cons of each.
How does pepper do this?
Piperine is a known inhibitor of a reaction called glucuronidation, which is a way the body metabolises drugs and other chemicals into inert and non-toxic substances. This reaction takes place in the intestinal wall and in the liver – which is where toxic chemicals first enter the body. The body recognises these high dosages of curcumin as toxic (as all phenolic compounds are to some degree), and tries to neutralise them. By inhibiting this reaction process, piperine prevents the glucuronidation of curcumin, and allows it to enter the blood stream and circulate the body.
Is this a good thing?
It can be, and is more good than bad in my opinion. If you want large amounts of curcumin in your system then sure, it is a good thing. Curcumin is non-toxic up to dosages of around 8g, and piperines inhibition of glucuronidation doesn’t last for a very long time. However, if you are taking other drugs (paracetamol etc) or other supplements, piperine could inhibit the glucuronidation of these chemicals – these kind of herbal/ drug interactions shouldn’t be taken lightly, and have put people in hospital.
The big question
So, do you need to take black pepper with turmeric?
Remember, this study uses curcumin, not turmeric. It’s like comparing absorption/ retention of vitamin C from an orange to a high dosage of pure vitamin C powder. It doesn’t work – there are other variables which come into play when you eat the whole food, and what comes out of a lab is different to what comes out of the soil. We know that consuming whole food improves the absorption of the nutrients, this can be seen with bioflavinoids improving the absorption of vitamin C2. So this paper doesn’t really answer the question about consuming black pepper with turmeric, only about black pepper and curcumin.
But there is lots of research on the benefits of turmeric without black pepper3. So, because there is plenty of research showing the benefits of turmeric without black pepper, I would say that you do not need to take black pepper with a turmeric supplement. If you want to take a curcumin supplement, they yes, it could be a good idea to take it with some black pepper – or perhaps just take it with a meal (which might contain some black pepper – yum).
1. Shoba G. (1998). Influence of piperine on the pharmacokinetics of curcumin in animals and human volunteers. Planta med. 64 (4), 353-6.
2. Vinson JA. (1988). Comparative bioavailability to humans of ascorbic acid alone or in a citrus extract. Am J Clin Nutr. 48 (3), 601-4.
3. Benzie IFF. (2011). 13. In: Boca Raton Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. NCBI Bookshelf: CRC Press.
Image courtesy of shadowfall.