Some time last year, I walked into a coffee shop. This sounds like the beginning of a bad joke but in fact, the joke was on me.
“One turmeric latte” I said. I was feeling inspired by the spate of articles I’d read over the past few months about how turmeric was the wonder ingredient that was going to transform me from erstwhile juice drinker into Amanda Chantal Bacon.
“£4” said the nonplussed barista. She'd seen my level of optimism before.
She wasn't joking. As much as I wanted her to be. My coffee was £4. £4, for a latte with some yellow powder in it. Outrageous daylight robbery, right there in Covent Garden.
Being terribly polite and British, though, I smiled like I’d been expecting this all along, took my latte and left the shop with my head held high. The latte was underwhelming. I did not feel better afterwards. Unless you count the caffeine hit, which wore off after two hours – a 99p filter coffee from Pret would have done exactly the same job.
Now, a year later, our love affair with turmeric is still going strong. As far as I can tell, it stems from its inclusion in a group of foods we've labelled "anti-inflammatory". These are not new. A few years ago – around 2012 – anti-inflammatory diets were all the rage but now, after taking the backseat for a while, they’ve swung back into our consciousness with a vengeance.
But what is classed as an anti-inflammatory food? Can they really help us age slower? And can they even, as is purported by some websites, prevent illnesses like heart disease and cancer?
The theory behind an anti-inflammatory diet is that eating certain foods can “prevent chronic inflammation in the body,” says Kirsten Crothers, registered dietitian and owner of The Food Treatment Clinic in Manchester, adding that a resurgence of interest in the concept is probably partly down to our obsession with finding the “next big thing” in nutrition.
Which foods are supposed to be anti-inflammatory? "Dark green leaves – spinach and kale," says Kirsten. "Then more colour veg like tomatoes and peppers and berries especially, as well." Supplements like vitamin E, turmeric (that guy) and olive oil are also on the list.
But does it work? “There’s no specific evidence to say that changing your diet will reduce the inflammation in your body,” Kirsten says, although she notes that there is a lot of evidence to suggest that people who follow a Mediterranean diet, which holds many similar principles, are less likely to be prone to illnesses like heart disease and cancer, which are associated with high levels of inflammation in the body.
According to Kirsten, there are two types of inflammation in the body. Firstly, it can occur as part of an immune response – like when you cut yourself and the area around the wound flares up. That’s your body clocking an injury and working to heal it. Less clear, though, are the implications of longer-term internal inflammation or “low grade chronic” inflammation.
For starters, it's tough to diagnose. There are blood tests but, according to Kirsten, they're unspecific. “If someone’s in hospital or they’ve just had surgery then you’d expect it to be high – and it’s not something you just do routinely.”
Some websites claim that eating anti-inflammatory foods can help with ageing and – while there are no meaningful studies to show the impact they can have on your skin – cancer and heart disease are both age-related diseases, so if anti-inflammatory foods can help prevent them, there might be something in that.
The problem is that more research is needed. “Look at bowel cancer,” Kirsten says. “There’s evidence to show that if you’ve got a high-fibre diet then you won’t get bowel cancer but then a lot of high-fibre food is anti-inflammatory so is it the anti-inflammatory food or the fibre?” she asks. The likelihood, of course, is that it’s a combination of both.
And so she recommends, unsurprisingly, a balanced diet for optimum health. “I know it’s really, really boring,” she says. “But eating a balanced diet is just the best. Everyone’s looking for that magic pill but at the end of the day, even though the anti-inflammatory diet looks like this fancy new thing, all it is is the Mediterranean diet, which has been around for years. It’s still oily fish, nuts, berries, plant sources of protein… It’s nothing new.”
But… but… what about my turmeric latte?
“It's an absolute waste of time,” Kirsten says. “It contains this thing called curcumin that’s supposed to have these anti-cancerous properties but the research behind it is really limited at the moment.” Added to which, she says, the research has been dealing with huge levels of curcumin – far more than you’d get from all the £4 lattes in the world. “It’s just food wankery," she chuckles. "And it’s disgusting in coffee. The only reason anyone should use it is in a curry for flavouring.”
There goes £4 I’m never getting back.