If you like spicy food, then keep eating: recently released research shows that super-hot foods like chili peppers may help you live longer.
“There is accumulating evidence from mostly experimental research to show the benefit of spices or their active components on human health,” said Lu Qi, an associate professor at Harvard School of Public Health and co-author of the study published this week in the BMJ.
Data collected from 2004 to 2008 for the China Kadoorie Biobank was analyzed by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences. Using self-reported questionnaires, the team analyzed the spicy food consumption of close to half a million people aged 30 to 70 across 10 regions in China, many of whom had suffered heart disease, cancer, and stroke.
The scientists then reviewed the records of 20,224 individuals who died over a 7-year follow-up period and concluded that those who consumed spicy food 6-7 times per week had a 14% lower risk of premature death from all causes compared with people who ate spicy foods less than once a week. In particular, those who regularly consumed spicy food were found to have a lower risk of death from cancer or ischemic heart and respiratory system diseases.
Fresh and dried chili peppers appeared to be the most common spicy sources.
The researchers wrote that capsaicin, a bioactive ingredient in chili peppers, is most likely the reason why individuals reaped so many health benefits from eating spicy foods. Capsaicin can help the body burn fat more quickly, and folk medicine practitioners swear by the substances to help fight infection and stimulate the kidneys, lungs, and heart.
Daphne Miller, associate clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco and author of The Jungle Effect: The Healthiest Diets from Around the World, Why They Work and How to Make Them Work for You, says there are many variables associated with eating spicy food that haven’t been accounted for. The researchers note limitations within their research including the lack of information about other dietary and lifestyle habits or how spicy food was cooked or prepared.
The team also notes in the report that although chili pepper was the most commonly used spice among hot-foot lovers, the use of different spices tends to increase as the use of chili pepper increases. Many of these various spices may provide health benefits of their own. Spicy foods have high levels of a chemical known as phenol, which contain many nutritional and anti-inflammatory values.
Now, scientists need to figure out if the health benefits observed in people who heat spicy food is “a biological mechanism or a behavioral mechanism,” according to Bio-psychologist John E. Hayes, who is an associate professor of food science and director of Sensory Evaluation Center at Penn State University.
Eating spicy food could trigger thermogenesis to occur – a biological connection that causes the basil metabolic rate to rise. A behavioral mechanism could be that eating spicy food makes people eat slower, thereby causing them to consume fewer calories.
Qi says a good way to find out would be to study other cultures of people who eat spicy food, such as those in India.
“It’s a very big study, a very controlled study,” he said, that may not generalize to other countries – this is the capsaicin and weight loss connection. For instance, in the U.S., “spicy food is ubiquitously available but not ubiquitously consumed.”
“You have to consider that when we talk about spicy food, we can mean vastly different things, with different health implications,” Hayes said. “That spicy food could be low-energy-density vegetables, like kimchee. Or it could be a high-energy-density food like barbecue spare ribs.”
But until we know more, one piece of valuable advice: don’t use the study’s findings as an excuse to chow down on barbecue spare ribs or two-dozen Buffalo wings. Simply try incorporating some chili peppers, jalapenos, or cayenne pepper in your meals.