By Candy Sagon
Your tongue is tingling, your face is flushed, your nose is dripping, your eyes are tearing — ah, the joys of eating hot, spicy food, some like it hot. And now a new study suggests those fiery meals may be good for your health.
A large Chinese health study of more than 487,000 subjects, ages 30 to 79, found that regularly eating spicy food is associated with a lower risk of death. Compared with those who ate spicy food less than once a week, those who ate it three or more times weekly had a 14 percent lower risk of death, while those who ate it once or twice a week had a 10 percent lower overall risk.
Hot-food lovers also had a lower death risk from cancer, coronary heart disease and respiratory illnesses, the scientists reported. The study was published in the BMJ.
The study authors stressed that this was an observational study, so no cause-and-effect relationship can be determined, said coauthor Lu Qi, M.D., an associate professor of nutrition and adjunct professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “But our data suggests people should eat more spicy foods,” he told AARP in an email.
The international team of researchers excluded participants with a history of cancer, heart disease and stroke. Subjects answered questions about their consumption of spicy food — including what type of chili peppers they used — as well as other foods and alcohol, then were followed for more than seven years.
Qi notes that many of the subjects had been eating spicy foods for much of their life, which could have influenced the results. “We tend to believe that the beneficial effects are from the long-term, probably lifetime, habit of eating spicy foods,” Qi said. Previous research has shown benefits from the ingredients in spices, including anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and antibacterial effects.
Among the study’s intriguing findings:
Fresh peppers are best. Those who spiced their food with fresh chili peppers — as opposed to dried peppers, chili sauce or chili oil — had a lower risk of death from cancer, coronary heart disease and diabetes. That may be because fresh peppers are richer in beneficial ingredients including capsaicin, vitamin C and other nutrients. For example, capsaicin, the ingredient that makes peppers hot, has been shown to help with glucose control.
Maybe skip the cold beer. The link to lower death risk was strongest in those who did not consume alcohol, although researchers were not sure why.
Women may get extra benefits. While the link to a longer life was found in both men and women, a lower risk of death from cancer, coronary heart disease and respiratory illnesses was more evident in women than men.
Before you pile on the peppers … In an accompanying editorial, nutritional epidemiologist Nita Forouhi of the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine in the U.K., said more research is needed before simply advising people to eat spicy food to improve their health. Further studies could determine whether chili-pepper-laden food really does prevent disease, or whether eating spicy food is merely an indication of other dietary or lifestyle factors that affect good health.