Can adding spice save your life?
Hillary Clinton credits her stamina to hot sauce. She reportedly picked up her spice habit in 1992, after reading that hot chilies help the immune system.
I, too, am one of those people who carry hot pepper flakes in my bag – such is my fear of bland food.
Spices for healing are an old belief with a modern incarnation. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, famously said: “Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food,” and used spices and herbs he collected in the Greek hills for healing. A spiced wine recipe containing cinnamon, cloves, allspice and honey – sounds delicious – is attributed to him, and was allegedly prescribed for many common ills. Mulled wine is an ancient remedy for the broken heart and aching body.
Current research is providing evidence of the benefits of spices. Spices have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, have been shown to affect fat metabolism, and have been found to aid in several conditions; ginger is a proven remedy for nausea and vomiting and several small studies suggest that cinnamon may improve glucose control in diabetics. Studies have shown anti-cancer activity of compounds that are present in spices in cell and animal models – the most promising compound is curcumin, abundant in turmeric.
A new study in PLOS one, that I’m sure will please hot sauce fans, looked to see if people who eat hot peppers live longer.
Hot pepper and mortality
The researchers, Mustafa Chopan and Benjamin Littenberg, included more than 16,000 Americans, whose hot pepper consumption was assessed through a food frequency questionnaire, and who were followed for about 19 years. During the follow up, almost 5000 of these people died.
Participants who reported eating hot peppers on a regular basis died 13 percent less than the people who didn’t eat spicy. The more hot peppers people ate, the less the risk of their dying from all causes, and these findings were adjusted to minimize known confounders such as obesity, income, exercise, education, marital status, smoking and dietary habits such as eating meat and vegetables.
This is of course an association. It doesn’t prove that hot peppers affect longevity.
The researchers remind us, though, that this association was demonstrated in another population: A recent study from 2015 including more than 500,000(!) Chinese people found a 14 percent risk-of-death reduction in spicy food eaters. They also suggest several mechanisms, which might explain the connection, among them, that capsaicin, the main substance that causes the tingling hotness in peppers, has antimicrobial properties. These might affect the bacteria in the gut, and cause the microbiome of individuals to be colonized by more healthful bacteria. The microbiome, a hot research topic, we are discovering, is linked to many diseases -- from diabetes to obesity and heart disease.
While I don’t think Sriracha will help you cheat death, and the magic properties of hot peppers are far from conclusively proven, one thing’s for sure: When food is properly seasoned it’s tastier and more appealing.
Season healthy food well, and it’ll help you eat healthy.
Spices also add a whole host of antioxidants and nutrients to your dish and reduce the need for salt, sugar and fat.
Spices are old. They have been valued for their ability to bring other worlds and cultures to our table, to make food delicious, interesting and beautiful well before the advent of these recent discoveries. Every sprinkle might also add a little health bonus.