Contrary to what was previously believed and advocated, a recent study has found people who regularly consume chilli peppers have a reduced mortality risk compared with those who never eat chillies.
Chilli peppers are now a global phenomenon. From Cambodia to California, and from Birmingham, Alabama to Birmingham, United Kingdom, spicy food is everywhere. If people remembered William Cowper for saying variety is the spice of life, in 2019, science may taken it forward by proving that spice itself is the heart of life.
History is replete with instances of cultures associating various health benefits with eating chilli peppers. However, as one of the authors of the recent study, Prof. Licia Lacoviello, explains, many of these beneficial properties have been ascribed “mostly on the basis of anecdotes or traditions, if not magic.”
Lately scientists have been focusing on capsaicin, the compound that gives chillies their unique and stingingly unmistakable punch. The authors of this latest study say capsaicin “has been observed to favorably improve cardiovascular function and metabolic regulation in experimental and population studies.”
Some other researchers have concluded that capsaicin might be useful in the fight against neuropathic pain, arthritis, gastrointestinal disorders, and even cancer.
Chillies and overall health benefits
Despite the fact that the interest in this area has been growing, only a handful studies have investigated the impact of regularly eating chillies on overall health and mortality.
The authors, from the Mediterranean Neurological Institute in Italy, mention two population studies designed to answer this question. One took place in China, and the other in the United States. Both reported lower mortality risk in the individuals who consumed the most chilli peppers.
In this recent study, the authors set out to confirm or deny these earlier findings in a European population. Also, by analysing cardiovascular disease biomarkers, such as lipid levels in the blood, they hoped to identify how chilli peppers might reduce mortality risk.
These Italian researchers have found that eating chilli peppers four or more times weekly reduces your risk of dying from a heart attack by 40%, and from stroke by more than 50%. And the researchers say peppers convey those benefits regardless of whether you have any cardiovascular risk factors or eat a healthy Mediterranean diet.
That follows a 2017 study published in the journal PLoS that found Americans who eat chilli peppers (not counting dried pepper flakes) reduced their risk of death over a 19-year timespan by 13%.
To investigate, they took data from the Molisani study; this data set includes 24,325 men and women living in Molise, Italy. After excluding individuals with missing data, 22,811 people took part.
They published their findings in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
All participants were over 35 years of age, and researchers followed them for an average of 8.2 years. During this time, the researchers captured information about the 1,236 participants who died during the study.
The scientists also had access to information about other factors that can influence health outcomes, including medical history, leisure-time physical activity, smoking status, alcohol intake, and socioeconomic data.
Each participant completed a questionnaire about their dietary habits during the year before enrollment in the study, including questions about chilli peppers.
In total, 24.3% of the participants consumed chilli peppers four or more times each week, and 33.7% consumed chilli peppers either rarely or never. The authors summarize their findings:
“In a model adjusted only for age, sex, and energy intake, regular consumption [4 or more times each week] of chilli pepper was associated with 23% lower risk of all-cause mortality, as opposed to none/rare intake, and results remained substantially unchanged in the fully adjusted model.”
What makes chilli peppers so health-friendly when they can be so hot they seem heart-stopping?
“The benefits appear to be the result of the tongue-searing chemical capsaicin, which helps moderate insulin response after eating and lowers resting heart rate, as well as phytonutrients that help process fats, dilate blood vessels, and knock out bacteria”, say Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dr. Mike Roizen.
“So enjoy whole wheat pasta arrabiata or diavolo using pepperoncini (like spicy Calabrian peppers that register 15,000 to 30,000 on the Scoville scale).
“And don’t shy away from Asian peppers found in dishes like Szechuan Dan Dan noodles or spicy vegetarian eggplant.”
Next time you end up in a restaurant offering spicy food, just go for it!