Are you someone who shies away from foods that pack a little extra heat, or do you prefer spicy? Turns out, if you’re the type to choose the mild salsa, you might want to rethink that strategy.
The Peppers-Death Risk Study Details
Though spices and hot peppers have been used in foods for thousands of years, only one study before this one, a 2015 study out of China, examined the connection between spicy foods and longevity in humans. That one provided compelling evidence that peppers reduced death from all causes, including cancer, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
Because we have pretty different eating habits and different types of foods — including peppers — here in the U.S., the study’s authors decided to test the association between peppers and health right here in America. Would the results hold up?
Scientists used data from the National Health and Nutritional Examination Study, or NHANES, to analyze the eating habits of more than 16,000 Americans. It turns out that respondents who’d eaten at least one hot red chili pepper a month reduced their risk of death by 13 percent, from 33.6 percent to 21.6 percent.
Interestingly, the study participants who consumed hot chili peppers were more likely to be younger, male and to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol than those who didn’t consume red chili peppers.
Though the study couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it is about hot red chili peppers that reduces the risk of death, the authors think it’s likely that capsaicin, one of the main components in the peppers, might play a role. Capsaicin is an antimicrobial that “may alter the gut microbiota and influence various metabolic diseases.”
In fact, the authors go on to say that peppers could help improve microbiome health, noting “many spices possess antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects and could serve to prevent and mitigate various chronic disease.” Gut health and inflammation strike again.
The Benefits of Spicy Foods
Aside from helping you lead a longer life, spicy foods have other benefits. Here’s why you should be adding them to your menu:
They can speed up your metabolism. Is cayenne really a weight-loss pepper? One study out of Purdue University wanted to see if adding cayenne pepper to food would suppress appetites and help people burn more calories. They selected 25 people, half of whom enjoyed spicy food and half who didn’t, to one of three random groups: food with no cayenne, food with a preferred amount of cayenne pepper and food with a standard serve of cayenne pepper, about half a teaspoon. (2)
Both groups who consumed cayenne pepper burned more calories after eating than the no-pepper group. For those who normally avoid spicy food, adding cayenne had extra benefits: these people felt less hungry and reduced cravings for salty, fatty foods. That makes sense, since hot peppers are considered natural appetite suppressants.
They improve heart health. Your ticker will thank you for consuming foods with a kick. That’s because the capsaicin found in spicy foods actually lowers cholesterol levels by reducing cholesterol accumulation in the body. It’s also an anti-inflammatory food, helping to reduce the risk of heart problems, along with a variety of other diseases. (3)
They help cool you down. Spicy foods aren’t just for cold months. We’re finally catching on to what spice lovers in South America, Asia and other notoriously warm climates figured out centuries ago: eating spicy foods in hot months actually cools you down.
Your internal temperature increases, matching the temperature outside the body. Your blood circulation increases so that you start sweating — which, in turn, cools you off once the moisture evaporates.
Tricks for Enjoying Spicy Foods
Are you a spicy foods newbie? Here are some pointers on how to get the most out of them while you become accustomed to the extra heat. And don’t worry — as your taste buds become used to spicy foods, they won’t feel quite as hot anymore. You’ll be adding in extra chilies before you know it.
Keep your hands away from your eyes. If you’re handling fresh hot peppers and their seeds in the kitchen, be sure you don’t rub your eyes until you’ve washed your hands thoroughly, or you’ll feel the sting. Also, remember that a lot of the heat is in the seeds: add them in gradually to keep spice levels manageable.
Follow a spicy bite with mouth-soothing foods. Combining spicy foods with a starch, like brown rice, sweet potatoes or tortillas, help your mouth absorb the sting. Eating avocados or other acidic foods like tomatoes (and sauce!) or citrus fruits will help as well.
Take it easy. If you’re not usually a big spice lover, don’t go off the deep end and choose the extra hot sauce for your first spice experimentation. Build up your spice levels gradually, adding a bit of hot peppers to meals, sprinkling crushed red pepper over your pizza or building up flavor by adding Cajun seasoning to chicken.
Have fun in the kitchen. You don’t always have to use the same two or three spices, either. Here’s a good roundup of the different spices and blends you can use to jazz up food and get those spicy health benefits. Different cuisines and cultures have their own spices, and trying them out is a great way to get creative and get out of a cooking rut.
Favorite Spicy Food Recipes
Looking to introduce spicy foods to the menu? Here are some of favorite recipes.
Spicy Kale Chips: The chipotle spice variety uses chipotle powder and cayenne pepper to bring some heat. These make a perfect snack to munch on while watching TV.
Sweet and Spicy Baked Chicken Thighs: One of my favorite ways to counteract hot foods is by pairing them with something sweet. These chicken thighs are super easy to make and aren’t overly hot.
Thai Chili Sauce: Make this all-purpose sauce for stir-fries, sandwiches or to dip veggies in.
- Thanks to the capsaicin found in peppers, eating spicy foods can help you live longer, but also provide a variety of other health benefits, like speeding up your metabolism and improving heart health.
- Pairing spicy foods with mouth-soothing foods like healthy starches or citrus will alleviate the sting.
- Adding spicy foods gradually and experimenting with your favorite flavors will help keep these beneficial ingredients in your diet.