We’ve had many questions lately about the use of various essential oils in place of, or as part of, golden paste. So here are some basics. This may get a bit technical, but I want to explain things properly so no one thinks we're just putting down any company’s product.
A look at turmeric essential oil first, since that’s the one that seems to pop up the most often.
Turmeric has two primary groups of active compounds, the three curcuminoids and three kinds of volatile oils called “turmerones” -- α-turmerone, ß-turmerone and +ar-turmerone (sometimes written out as alpha-, beta- and aromatic turmerones). The turmeric essential oils on the market are usually a combination of these three turmerones. I don’t know of any company that provides a breakdown of the composition of their product, but the average is said to be around 33% ar-turmerone, 24% alpha-turmerone and 23% beta-turmerone.
All the turmerones have been investigated, though nowhere near as extensively as the curcuminoids. They have all been found to have some anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity, as well as antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal properties. Alpha-turmerone has been studied for its effect on neural stem cells (in fetal rat tissue). It has also been found to initiate apoptosis of some kinds of cancer cells (human leukemia, but not stomach cancer, for example). Beta-turmerone has probably had the least amount of specific study, partly because of the difficulty in isolating it from the others. It’s mentioned in some studies of how protein-protein interactions take place on cell membrane surfaces.
So what does all this boil down to in terms of the products being marketed so heavily right now?
First—yes, they probably do have some value on their own. But they are not a substitute for whole turmeric, nor do they contain the curcuminoids in any useful amounts. Laboratory testing of crude extracts of turmerones found them to be contaminated with miniscule amounts of curcuminoids. Without having specific data on the products being sold as turmeric EO, I can’t swear that there are no traces of the curcuminoids in them. But the crude extracts contained such small amounts that they were insufficient to provide the known benefits of the curcuminoids. The next step in the process of making a commercial turmeric EO is to further refine it so that it’s free of contaminants, thereby, of course, removing any traces of the curcuminoids that it might have started out with.
That means they are not a substitute for turmeric, nor even for curcumin extracts. They are not a substitute for golden paste, with its whole turmeric and freshly ground black pepper—they contain none of the other active components of turmeric, nor the helpful components of black pepper (read on for more about black pepper EO).
What’s more, they may have some hazards that the marketing conveniently doesn’t mention. We tell people frequently that turmeric (whole turmeric) is an anticoagulant and that you need to exercise caution with its consumption if you’re taking anticoagulant drugs like Plavix, Warfarin, Xarelto and others. The turmerones are considerably more potent anticoagulants than whole turmeric. I have not seen this mentioned in any of the marketing for them, but it’s not something to gloss over.
In addition, at least one study found that in order to achieve anti-inflammatory benefits in laboratory animals, they had to be given toxic doses. (see the footnote * below). Here’s a brief quote:
“Crude or refined TEO [turmeric essential oil] extracts dramatically inhibited joint swelling (90-100% inhibition) in female rats with streptococcal cell wall (SCW)-induced arthritis when extracts were administered via intraperitoneal injection to maximize uniform delivery. However, this anti-arthritic effect was accompanied by significant morbidity and mortality. Oral administration of a 20-fold higher dose TEO was non-toxic, but only mildly joint-protective (20% inhibition). These results do not support the isolated use of TEO for arthritis treatment, but, instead, identify potential safety concerns in vertebrates exposed to TEO.”
Of course, we don’t use essential oils via intraperitoneal injection or at levels anywhere near what was used in this trial. Even so, it warrants some concern that amounts large enough to see significant beneficial effects were also enough to cause toxicity. What that tells me is that products manufactured for the general public are likely to be diluted sufficiently to prevent any likelihood of toxicity, but are then also likely not to have much benefit.
Other studies (see the second footnote ** for one of them) have shown beneficial effects without obvious toxicity, so the jury is still out on exactly what the turmerones can do and what the possible side effects may be. Clearly, the percentage of essential oils in whole turmeric is not a safety concern, but when you extract anything and concentrate it to many times its original form, its effects are obviously going to be different.
My other major concern about the turmeric EO’s is the half-truths and outright deceptive marketing indulged in by the companies selling them. For example, one company states
“…some studies point out that a high content of turmerones—such as what’s found in turmeric essential oil—can help boost curcumin absorption and significantly increase the amount of curcumin inside the cell.”
Um, yes, IF the product contains any curcumin to begin with! They conveniently don’t bother to explain that in order to get the effect of turmeric essential oil on curcumin, you have to purchase another product that contains curcumin.
I looked at four different brands of turmeric essential oil. One company marketed it in a wholly ethical way, without claims for any particular health benefit, simply explaining what it consisted of. Kudos to them (Mountain Rose).
All the others, without exception, made erroneous claims about the composition of turmeric EO. Several of them claimed that turmeric EO contains over 300 phytochemicals. No, whole turmeric contains over 200 phytochemicals, among which are the three turmerones. One company listed curcumin as a sesquiterpene along with the turmerones. Curcumin is not a sesquiterpene—it’s a phenol (or phenolic), a completely different kind of chemical compound.
There is one sesquiterpene with a name similar to curcumin: curcumene. Like the turmerones, this also comes in the form of alpha-curcumene and aromatic-curcumene. This is not the same thing as curcumin, though quite a few people appear to have jumped to that conclusion. It is a minor component of some turmeric EO’s, but it is also found in many other spices and scented plants: rosemary, black pepper, lemon verbena, aniseed, carrot seed, pelargonium, patchouli, sage, and a fairly long list of others. So it is not curcumin, and it is not specific to turmeric (and it does not make up a significant percentage of whole turmeric or even turmeric essential oils).
Two of the other companies I looked at do not sell a separate curcumin product. But another one does, and one of its salespeople was happy to explain to me that if I also bought this other product, I’d be getting the benefit of both turmerones and curcumin. I pointed out to her that I could buy a pound of whole turmeric with its curcumin and turmerones intact for much less than the two little bottles she wanted to sell me. I regret to say that didn’t go over very well.
So here is our advice: if you want a topical product that probably does have some antifungal, antiviral and antibacterial activity, and you don’t mind paying quite a lot of money for it, any one of the turmeric EO’s is likely to provide that. But they are not a substitute for golden paste, and in our opinion should not be ingested.
What about black pepper essential oil? This one is far more simple to explain. The primary active constituent of black pepper is an alkaloid called ‘piperine.’ Black pepper EO does not contain piperine. Therefore, it does not provide the benefits of piperine, namely to help turmeric stay in the body for a longer period of time than it would without the black pepper. Black pepper has other beneficial properties as well (see our article in the files about it). But for the purpose of helping turmeric, the piperine is what we’re concerned with and black pepper EO doesn’t have any.
So no. You can not substitute black pepper EO for freshly ground black pepper in golden paste.
* Anti-Arthritic Effects and Toxicity of the Essential Oils of Turmeric (Curcuma longa L.)
Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, 2010, 58 (2), pp 842–849
** An evaluation of antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antinociceptive activities of essential oil from Curcuma longa L.
Indian Journal of Pharmacology, 2011 Sep-Oct; 43(5): 526–531.