Turmeric secrets

Raghad Elgamal

Turmeric is a rhizome root in the Zingiberaceae family. It is a widely known spice that is used worldwide, known for its flavor and medicinal benefits. It is commonly added to culinary dishes to enhance its flavor, color, and add nutritional value to it. While turmeric is an ancient spice that has been used throughout the years, it has recently gained popularity in North America. As it has gained popularity, it has also been more likely to be subject to the addition of adulterants. Turmeric is considered one of the most adulterated spices due to the high demand of it in the trade market. The most commonly used adulterant is chromate metal dyes, other lower quality wild curcuma species, Sudan dyes, and other fillers uch as ginger, cumin, white pepper and so on.

The wild turmeric species known as Curcuma Zedoaria, is often used to increase the quantity of its relative, Curcuma longa as a way to increase the quantity. It is known that Curcuma Zedoaria is of lower quality in terms of the medicinal properties compared to Curcuma longa. The use of adulterants is an unethical way to increase the quantity of turmeric supply and can contain unwanted chemicals such as metal dyes, and illegal Sudan dyes. This can be a culprit of negative health impacts for the human body.

As turmeric is gaining popularity, its export has also been increasing throughout the years. Because Turmeric is a native plant to India, this allows India to be the largest producer of turmeric, selling around 42% of the whole turmeric trade (Parvathy et al. 2015). Due to the high demand for turmeric in the medicinal industry, beauty industry, as well as, food industry it makes it one of the top spices to be sold worldwide in huge amounts. However, such high demand has altered the industry’s mechanism of production. Often, using fillers to alter the composition to appeal for the consumer. As India is the major producer (Nair 2013); UAE is the leading importer of Turmeric from India to neighbouring countries and worldwide. Nair (2013: 3) reveals that “UAE accountable for about 18% of the total export volume”, which makes the UAE the largest importer of turmeric from India to worldwide followed by the United States, accounting for 8% of the export volume; while the rest, 75% is divided individually between several countries around the world (Nair 2013).

The export system of Turmeric to worldwide is complex and huge. Turmeric is often processed in third world countries, and there is a deficit in food and spice regulation in countries such as Bangladesh, Thailand, and India. The regulations of spices are not implemented as in food industries. The processing and production of turmeric as a commodity is an expensive and extensive process which leaves it open for the countries producing turmeric as spice to choose to follow regulatory food requirements or not. However, the regulation matter is also hard to follow because each country is subject to different laws and regulations, which results in different food product quality from different regions. Forsyth and Gleason (2019: 2) mentions “Despite its widespread consumption and uses, turmeric has not been extensively examined for adulteration”. This shows that due to the high need of turmeric as an expensive commodity, the quantity is often more significant that the quality. Which results in a product that is much lower in quality.

The use of Sudan dyes and lead chromate in turmeric to enhance the desirable yellow color is widely used in Bangladesh in the rural area of Munshi Ganj (Forsyth et al. 2019). Sudan dye is illegal and has been banned worldwide. Alim-un-Nisa (2016: 1) states, “Sudan dyes I, II, III, IV are considered harmful to human health due to their teratogenicity, genotoxicity, and carcinogenicity which leads to cancer”. However, it is still used by industries to color oils, and spices. Another Adulterant used to increase the quantity of turmeric is through the use of cheaper quality curcumin species. Osman, and colleagues (2019: 377) explaines, “Genuine turmeric is harvested from Curcuma longa which has been found to be usually substituted with C. zedoaria and C. malabarica”.  However, the wild species of curcuma, such as C. Zedoaria has low levels of toxicity, due to the zedoary oil that is naturally present in it which can be toxic to the human body when consumed in large amounts. Even though, C. Zedoaria might not be as harmful as the use of the lead dyes and Sudan dye, it still acts as an adulterant to forge the quantity and quality of turmeric. This often results in an inferior product with higher quantity to maximize the sales and profit. Another adulterant used is chromate dyes that contain lead. Lead is known to be highly toxic to the human brain. Even small amounts of lead are known to affect negatively the cognitive performance of the brain (Forsyth et al. 2019). Forsyth and colleagues (2019: 4) have found that in the rural Munshi Ganj district of Bangladesh, “78% out of 309 children between the ages of 20-40 months had elevated blood lead levels”, due to the wide use of turmeric in curries. The exposure of lead in infants and children has been known to cause poisoning and if left untreated to potential death.

The Forsyth and colleagues (2019:4) study interviewed several districts in Bangladesh known for the processing, production and distribution of Turmeric in Bangladesh and worldwide. In the study they said, “The Bangladeshi companies we interviewed primarily export turmeric to the United Arab Emirates and other Middle Eastern countries, and also to the UK, the U.S., and Canada”. Through the interviews conducted in the Forsyth study, it was revealed that farmers added yellow pigment to the dried turmeric roots to help forge the desirable yellow color of lower quality turmeric roots. Therefore, increasing the likelihood of the sale of the product. This augmentation also helps with increasing the quantity of turmeric produced as the polishing process of the dried roots often result in a loss of quantity (Forsyth et al. 2019).  In addition, the nature of the weather, especially the rain can affect turmeric’s ability to properly dry off before collection and processing. This can affect the release of the yellow color being produced. The yellow color only appears if the Turmeric root is dried thoroughly and it can be time consuming for farmers to dry them. However, such effect of water on color does not change the chemical structure of curcuminoids in turmeric, hence, the nutritional value and quality is still the same. The interview revealed that even though the farmer’s perception on their use of adulterants were negative, they still felt the need to add color to appeal to the consumer. In addition, the farmers were not aware of the harmful health impact it potentially might have on the consumer (Forsyth et al. 2019). Forsyth and Cowell (2019: 2) showed that thirteen brands of turmeric exported by Bangladesh and India have been recalled worldwide since 2011 due to excessive Pb concentration. This showcases the evident impact of adulterants on turmeric as a spice product.

Gleason (2014: 2) have found that in the rural district of Munshi Ganj in Bangladesh that the “average Pb concentrations of 80 μg/g in turmeric, more than 30 times higher than the national threshold for allowable Pb in turmeric in Bangladesh”. This high level of lead is known to be the main cause of high blood lead levels in Bangladesh (Forsyth et al. 2019).  The study also collected 140 turmeric samples from different regions in Bangladesh and over 200 samples from small producing districts. It was revealed that Dhaka and Munshi Ganj’s products contained lead in their products. But it was still significantly lower than the two small producing districts in Bangladesh. Forsyth (2019: 5) indicated, ”11% of samples containing Pb in excess of the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution’s limit of 2.5 μg/g Pb in turmeric (Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution, 2001), compared to 26% in Dhaka and Munshiganj”. This showed that the lack of enforcement and consequences implemented for farmer’s use of chromate dyes has led to an excessive use of lead coloring in the end product. That is known to be highly dangerous to the human body.

Some have suggested that this further complicates the identification process of the turmeric spice itself due to the nature of other species containing the same active ingredient, curcumin (Singhal et al. 1997; Dhanya 2011). Dhanya (2011: 1) said, “Turmeric is most subjected to adulteration because it is frequently traded in its ground form”. Turmeric’s adulterants are often masked under the visual representation that it is naturally traded in, that is in ground form. The consumer is not able to detect such use of adulterants solely from using their senses. However, due to the high demand of Turmeric in the spice industry, the use of color additives is increasingly used in turmeric to the appeal to the consumer, without regard to their potential negative health impacts.   

Recently, there have been actions taken against such adulteration through the implementation of adulterants in spices. The only current spice regulation policies implemented in America is done through the FDA and ASTA, American Spice Trade Association, while in Europe it is regulated by the European Spice Association. While these spice regulations are implemented to protect against the use of adulterants in turmeric and other spices, it is simply not enough to supervise the huge amounts of turmeric sold annually (Parvathy et al. 2015). There is no enforcement for farmers or industries to the use of colors in the processing of turmeric in countries such as India, and Bangladesh (Forsyth et al. 2019).

Parvathy (2015: 2) states, “The ASTA rejects a consignment of turmeric powder even if it contains as little as 0.55 of foreign matter”. The second element that helps counteract the use of adulterants is through the globalization of food industry trade. The frequent use of stamps, and other forms of labels help guarantee the origin and authenticity of food products for the consumer (Parvathy et al. 2015). While this use of traceability is a dynamic approach to help prevent the use of adulterants for North American consumers’ and guarantees their safety; it is still not globally supervised throughout different countries. A future approach should take place to ensure the quality of turmeric as a spice product. It is important for regulations to be applied in order to protect the consumer from harmful adulterants.


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