Good news for chili chompers: Regularly chowing down on spicy foods is associated with a lower risk of death, especially if you stay away from booze. But before you start drowning your cheerios in tabasco sauce, it’s unclear at this stage whether it is the spicy food itself or some other factor that is potentially bestowing the observed benefits. Regardless, further research is warranted, and the findings add to a growing body of evidence that chili could be healthful. The study has been published in The BMJ.
The world seems to have an ongoing obsession with unlocking the secrets to longevity. What makes people live longer, and can we alter our lives to stitch a few years onto our finite timelines? There is no simple answer at this stage; aging is incredibly complex, but one factor that has long been considered the cornerstone of health and longevity is diet.
While we know that eating your greens and grains and avoiding too much sugar and processed food is the way to go, what about components of food, like spices? Lab investigations and small population studies have highlighted possible benefits of the active ingredients of various spices, and given the popularity and widespread use of chili in particular, researchers decided to embark on an impressively large and more robust study to find out more.
Almost half a million adults from 10 geographically diverse areas in China were enrolled between 2004 and 2008 and followed for around seven years. At the start of the study, participants filled in a questionnaire about their spicy food consumption habits, including how often they ate these foods and what spices they tended to contain, like fresh chili pepper or chili sauce. Data was also collected on numerous other factors and characteristics, such as education, alcohol consumption, physical activity and intake of red meat and other foods.
After excluding those with a family history of cancer, heart disease and stroke, during the follow-up investigation more than 20,000 of the participants died. They found that those who ate spicy foods one or two days a week had a 10% lower risk of death – both overall and from specific causes like cancer – than those who only ate such foods less than once per week. Those who ate spicy foods almost every day were at a 14% lower mortality risk than infrequent consumers. Although the same trends were seen in both men and women, the relationship was strongest in those who avoided alcohol.
So should we all start shoveling spices to live longer? Not so fast. The study has merits due to the large sample size, but also clear limitations: It was confined to the Chinese population and may therefore not be generalizable, it relied on self-reporting – which is not quantitative and cannot be validated – and studies such as this cannot infer cause and effect. Furthermore, since it is rare to use one spice in isolation, it is difficult to point the finger at chilies when it could be another ingredient commonly used in conjunction, or even a style of cooking, that is behind the observed relationship.
That being said, various prior studies have identified numerous possible health benefits of the active compound in chili, capsaicin, which seems to possess antioxidant, anti-cancer, and anti-inflammatory properties, to name just a few. The association is therefore plausible, but not confirmed, so further studies are warranted.