People who can tolerate jalapeño peppers may be better off than those who break out in a sweat while eating spicy food. A study, published in the British Medical Journal, found clear health benefits from regular consumption of foods high in spices.
Previous research linked consuming the capsaicin in peppers and other spicy foods to lower risks of heart disease, cancer and obesity. The new study, directed by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, featured more than 487,000 adults in China who were followed for four years.
People who ate spicy foods one or two days a week were 10 percent less likely to die during the study, as compared to people who did not eat spicy food each week. Consuming spicy foods 3 to 5 times a week increased that reduction to 14 percent. The researchers found the benefits of spicy food to be the same for men and women, and for those who did not drink alcohol, it was more beneficial.
In addition to having a lower risk of death during the study period, those who ate spicy foods frequently were also less likely to die specifically as a result of cancer, heart disease, and respiratory diseases.
Most of the participants who consumed spicy foods weekly used fresh or dried chili peppers to flavor their dishes. The study linked using fresh chili instead of dried to lower rates of death from cancer, heart disease, or diabetes. Fresh chili is rich in capsaicin, vitamin C, and other nutrients.
But the study only links spicy food consumption to a lower disease risk—it doesn’t prove it as cause and effect, the authors caution. So, should people purposefully eat spicy food to improve health? In an accompanying editorial, Nita Forouhi, a nutrition expert from the University of Cambridge, says it’s too early to tell. She calls for more research to test whether these associations are the direct result of spicy food intake or are simply connected to other factors in diet and lifestyle. However, in the context of a healthy diet, spicy food won’t hurt you—and may help.