Eating Hot Pepper Lowers Mortality Risk, Says Vast Chinese Study

A huge Chinese study clearly ties capsaicin, the chemical in hot peppers, to a lower risk of death in both sexes, though why remains unclear.

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Drying harvested chili peppers in the sun, in Ahmedabad, India.
Drying harvested chili peppers in the sun, in Ahmedabad, India.Credit: Reuters
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

That chili may feel like its setting your mouth on fire, but it isn't. In fact maybe it's saving your life. A sweeping new study from China finds that regular consumption of food spiced with chili peppers is associated with lower mortality rates.

The findings are based on a study of nearly half a million Chinese all around the country aged 30 to 79, enrolled from 2004 to 2008, who filled out questionnaires about their general health and eating habits – specifically their predilection for fiery foods containing capsaicin, the bioactive chemical in chili that burns your mouth and nose.

The Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences researchers kept track of the participants for just over seven years on average (died / did not die), and found a consistent inverse association between habitually eating spicy food and total mortality, in both men and women.

In other words: eat chili, live longer, according to the Chinese statistics.

Before you go out and buy a pet chili plant, take a moment to heed your intestines. "A lot of studies have indicated the positive properties of chili peppers," points out Mariana Urbach, chief dietitian at the Clalit health maintenance organization. "There's just one problem – it doesn't work for everyone."

Chiefly, eating chili peppers isn't a good idea for people with ulcers, either in the stomach or anywhere else in the digestive system. The pepper does not cause ulceration. But it can prevent healing and can exacerbate bleeding.

"Usually people who have ulcers know it," Urbach observes. "But if you're feeling gastrointestinal discomfort, an ache here or pain there, that hasn't been diagnosed yet – get a diagnosis before buying gobs of chili peppers and eating them. Don't put it off!"

Also, some people are allergic to capsaicin. If you don't know whether you're allergic, start use gingerly – that includes whether adding to your ice cream or plastering it in cream form on your skin.

Honey is sugar, says Mariana Urbach, head dietitian at Clalit.Credit: Clalit Health Services

Hot pepper only feels like it's killing you

Enteric lesions aside, how exactly does chili pepper benefit one's health? Nobody knows, as the many researchers of signed onto the paper freely admit. They didn't try to check that. What they did is to empirically demonstrate that people who live regularly on spicy foods lived longer, on average.

Other studies indicate that the bioactive component, capsaicin, has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, possibly anti-cancer characteristics as well, and may also help combat obesity. There is also evidence that eating fresh chili peppers may reduce the risk of diabetes ("Both capsaicin and capsiate reduced body weight gain, visceral fat accumulation, serum leptin levels and improved glucose tolerance without modulating energy intake in diabetic rats," a team from the Korea Food Research Institute wrote in 2013.) Capsaicin may also inhibit the growth of prostate cancer cells, a University of California team reported in the March 2006 issue of "Cancer Research".

The hot stuff in chilis probably evolved precisely as a deterrent to stop animals from eating the fruit. Eating the capsaicin hurts their mucus membranes as badly as it does yours. Though, like in your case, it isn't actually harming them: capsaicin simply activates a biochemical pain pathway. It is true that you don't want this stuff in your eye, and that handling raw peppers can cause a form of contact dermatitis, involving swelling and pain. (Suggestion: Wear gloves when mucking about with chilis).

Fresh chilis are higher in certain bioactive chemicals than dried powdered chili. Like other members of the pepper family, chilis when fresh also contain vitamin C, which is nice.

However, before you tie the kids to the dinner table and start waving spoonfuls of chilis and threats at them, a word of caution.

The study did not check cause, and did not prove, or set out to prove, that eating chili peppers will make you live longer. Their consumption could be a marker for other dietary or lifestyle factors that are making the real difference, as the nutritional epidemiologist Dr. Nita Forouhi from the University of Cambridge points out.

Flavor of the day?

How much does one have to eat to gain the benefit? Compared with people who ate spicy foods less than once a week, those who consumed it almost every day, 6 or 7 days a week showed a 14% relative risk reduction in total mortality, writes the research team.

Not game to eat fire every day? Even a bit can go a long way, so to speak. Eating hot pepper one or two days a week was found to lower the risk of death by 10% compared with study participants who indulged less than once a week.

The association was stronger in those who did not consume alcohol, say the doctors.

Urbach begs to point out that chili pepper is not a medicine, and after getting their insides checked – especially if one has a history of stomach issues, people should add it to their diet intelligently. The Rambam himself said that every person's body functions differently and if in doubt, says Urbach, one should consult one's doctor or dietitian.

And in any case, keep it real. Food fads come and go, she points out, and generally speaking, all vegetables have what she calls "healthful properties". "Chili pepper is the rising star but you shouldn't put all your money on one food. The most important thing is to eat a widely varied healthy diet," Urbach urges.

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