Some cite endless health benefits of spicy food. Others warn piling on too much spice may be bad for you. So, is spicy food good for you or not?
From Jamaican jerk to the hottest of hot pots, America simply loves spicy food. No matter what state you live in, odds are you can easily find a wide range of spicy food dishes from all over the globe in your neighborhood.
Since spicy food holds such a special place in our hearts as well as on our plates, shouldn’t we get to know it a little bit better? Here’s a common question we often hear: Is spicy food good for you? Some say it can boost your immune system, clear your sinuses or even help you lose weight naturally.
In this article, we’ll outline the health benefits of spicy food and explore how and why spicy food is good for you (and when it’s bad).
How We Measure Spiciness
When we perceive a particular dish or food as spicy, our reaction has less to do with taste than it does with a purely physical response. The sensation we get when eating spicy food is a reaction of our temperature and pain receptors in our mouths. And different substances elicit different responses. Capsaicin contained in chilies makes them particularly pungent, piperine acts as an arousing agent in pepper while the active ingredient responsible for spice in ginger is known as gingerol.
The level of spiciness of chilies and chili products can be measured on the Scoville scale with the unit Scoville (SHU). The precise degree of spice is determined by capsaicin content: For instance, 1 milligram of capsaicin per kilogram (or 1 part per million) corresponds to 16.1 SHU.
Here are a couple examples of common spicy foods in order to give you an idea of the Scoville scale:
- Hot pepper: 100 – 500 SHU
- Tabasco: 2,500 – 8,500 SHU
- Habaneros: 100,000 – 250,000 SHU
- Pure capsaicin: 16,000,000 SHU
Spicy Food is Good For You: The Health Benefits
So what’s the catch – is spicy good for you or not? The chemical capsaicin responsible for spiciness in peppers is proven to possess a number of health benefits. Spicy food lovers can look forward to the following health-promoting properties:
- Weight loss: Although deep fried chicken wings drenched in spicy sauce probably won’t cut it, hot peppers may help you burn calories by kick starting your metabolism.
- Lower risk of obesity and high blood pressure: Scientists from Qatar University’s human nutrition department found chilli consumption is linked to a lower risk of obesity. This spicy food was also found to help adults with hypertension (high blood pressure).
- Eating spicy food may help you live longer: Researchers in China found that “those who consumed spicy foods 6 or 7 days a week showed a 14 percent relative risk reduction in total mortality,” according to a comprehensive population based study. Lu Qi, professor of nutrition at Harvard’s school of public health, cites the potential for reduction in “deaths due to cancer, heart disease, and respiratory diseases.” Capsaicin may be responsible for this as it has been found to improve metabolism, cholesterol in the blood as well as inflammation.
Spicy Food and Life Expectancy
All in all, there are many good reasons why you should eat spicy food. In terms of life expectancy, there are a number of studies out there that suggest that spicy food reduces the risk of death (e.g. this population-based study by the Association of Hot Red Chili Pepper Consumption and Mortality). However, the majority of these studies lack sufficient scientific evidence.
Highlighted in an April BBC article on the topic, one common issue with tracing the health benefits of spicy food is separating correlation from causation – or cause from effect. Harvard School of Public Health puts it like this: “if people use spices on their food to replace salt, it could be the reduced salt intake that provides a health benefit — not necessarily the addition of spices.”
Another factor to consider is that we tend to eat a great deal of chilis along with vegetables. That may also contribute to the health benefits of spicy food – never underestimate the value of balanced diet.
When is Spicy Food Bad For You?
Some like it hot. Others like it ghost pepper hot (1,041,427 SHU) and often have a couple jugs of milk at the ready in case things go south. So when exactly does spicy food stop being good for you? Well, first it depends on how spicy. Second, it also depends on whether we’re considering immediate or long-term effects.
Let’s look back to capsaicin. This active component in spicy chili peppers activates the neurons responsible for pain reception. Here, your body receives a signal of the presence of heat in the same manner as with an actual burn. So if the amount of capsaicin is more than you should consume at one time (depending on individual tolerance), you bet your body – in most cases your stomach – will act fast to neutralize the threat.
Immediate physical symptoms of ingesting too much capsaicin contained in extremely spicy foods may include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal pain and diarrhea
- Burning sensation when ingested
- High blood pressure
Overall, there don’t seem to be any serious long-term dangers to eating incredibly spicy peppers or other spicy foods. In an article written on the topic of health benefits of spicy food, UChicago Medicine gastroenterologist Edwin McDonald often hears patients cite spicy food as the suspected culprits for a number of gastrointestinal problems, such as ulcers. “Contrary to popular belief, multiple studies show that capsaicin actually inhibits acid production in the stomach. As a matter of fact, capsaicin has been considered as a medication for preventing ulcer development in people who take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.”
Eating Hot Food: Just the Right Amount
Those who choose to enjoy a tolerable amount of heat in their spicy food generally have nothing to fear. Combined with a balanced diet, spicy food can be goof for you – it has a lot to offer in the way of health benefits. For those keen on tempting their tummies with insane amounts of heat, spiciness can have unpleasant – but not life-threatening – consequences. To avoid these, you should follow these tips:
- It is best to wear gloves when cutting or otherwise processing chilies. If you don’t have gloves at the ready, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly afterwards and avoid touching your eyes.
- Take your first tastes bite by bite and try not to use too much spicy seasoning.
- Capsaicin is fat-soluble. If you’ve overdone it, you can remedy the burning sensation with dairy products (milk) or starchy foods (bread).
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