People who love chili peppers might be eating their way to a longer life, according to a new study published in The British Medical Journal (BMJ). So Each time you drizzle Tabasco on your food, ask for kimchi top-ups and munch on fresh chilies, you may be lowering your risk of death.
“We know something about the beneficial effects of spicy foods basically from animal studies and very small-sized human studies,” says study author Lu Qi, associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. Some of those preliminary studies have found that spicy food and their active components—like capsaicin, the compound found in chili peppers—might lower inflammation, improve metabolic status and have a positive effect on gut bacteria and weight, he says.
Eating chili-rich spicy foods was also linked to a lower risk of death from certain diseases, including cancer, ischemic heart diseases and respiratory diseases, they found. Further analysis revealed that fresh chili had a stronger protective effect against death from those diseases.
Veteran nutritionist Rosemary Stanton, a visiting fellow at University of NSW, said spicy foods were also known to be more satisfying to the appetite.
“When people eat bland food, they overeat, which is known to have a negative impact on long-term health,” she said.
The Chili Test
Qi and a team of researchers looked at questionnaire data from about half a million adults all across China who participated in the China Kadoorie Biobank study between 2004-2008. Each person in the study reported his or her health status, alcohol consumption, spicy food consumption, main source of chili intake – fresh or dried, in a sauce or in an oil – as well as meat and vegetable consumption.
Participants with a history of cancer, heart disease, and stroke were excluded from the study, and factors such as age, marital status, level of education, and physical activity were taken into account.
The researchers followed up with them about seven years later. Compared to people who ate spicy foods less than once a week, people who ate them just once or twice a week had a 10% reduced risk of death. Knocking up the spice consumption didn’t make much of a difference; those who ate spicy food 3-7 days a week were at 14% reduced risk of death compared to the most spice-averse group.
Not Jumping To Conclusions
Dr Jimmy Louie, a nutritional epidemiology expert at the University of Sydney, warned the public about getting too excited about the results, as such studies did not prove causality.
“You shouldn’t look at the results of this epidemiological study and say, ‘This is what I should do’. This is not the intention of the study. The study shows an association of two factors, it doesn’t prove which one causes which,” he said. “The next step is to run a randomised trial,” he said. “This is a lot more expensive.”
In an editorial in The BMJ, nutritional epidemiology expert Nita Forouhi from the University of Cambridge said the study did not take into account dietary habits linked with eating spicy foods, the degree of hotness of the foods, and the impact of associated drinking habits.
“Future studies should explore if confounding or effect modification by other drinking habits might play a part, as it is highly likely that drinks such as water or different types of tea are consumed in greater amounts among those with a greater chilli intake,” she said.
According to Prof. Qi, more research is needed to make any causal case for the protective effects of chili—this does not prove that the spicy foods were the reason for the health outcomes—but he finds this observational research valuable. “It appears that increasing your intake moderately, just to 1-2 or 3-5 times a week, shows very similar protective effect,” he says. “Just increase moderately. That’s enough.”