Do Spicy Foods Really Help You Live Longer?
Chinese study links chile peppers to reduced mortality risk.
The nation’s “chile heads” rejoiced recently over red-hot headlines linking consumption of spicy foods with lower mortality risk. In a Chinese study of 487,375 people, ages 30 to 79, those who reported consuming spicy foods almost daily were 14% less likely to die during 7.2 years of followup than those rarely eating chile-fueled foods. Major US media outlets gobbled up the study, published in BMJ, with headlines like USA Today’s: “Eating Spicy Food Might Help You Cheat Death a Little Longer.”
Capsaicin, the compound that makes chile peppers “hot,” has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial effects. Animal studies have suggested possible benefits for blood pressure, improved insulin sensitivity and cancer protection. So it’s plausible that eating chile peppers might pay longevity dividends.
But Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, executive editor of the Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter, cautions, “We can’t exclude the possibility that people who are healthier and certainly feeling good are more likely to enjoy a variety of foods, including those that are highly spiced.”
OBSERVATIONAL ONLY: Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences who conducted the study—which they said was the first of its kind—acknowledged that such observational studies can’t prove cause and effect.
The scientists were careful to exclude participants with cancer, heart disease or stroke when the study began. That meant, however, that relatively few deaths were recorded during the span of the research—only about 20,000 among nearly a half-million people. Although 14% sounds like a significant difference in mortality, statistically about 2,800 non-chile eaters would have to spice up their diets to save one life.
Most of the participants were asked about their frequency of chile-pepper consumption only once, at the start of the study. Among other lifestyle factors, spicy food intake was linked to greater alcohol consumption; the lower mortality risk, however, was significant only in chile eaters who didn’t drink alcohol.
Researchers also noted a “threshold” effect, in which increasing the “dose” of chiles was linked to only slightly greater longevity: Eating spicy food only once or twice a week was associated with a 10% lower mortality risk—not much different from the lower risk seen with nearly daily consumption. Says Tufts’ Lichtenstein, “This in itself suggests there may be other factors at play for those people who reported a taste for spicy food that contributed to their longevity.”
RURAL AND REGIONAL DIFFERENCES: Data on participants’ physical activity was limited. This might be important because rural residents—likely more physically active—were much more prone to frequent chile consumption.
Other experts commenting on the findings suggested that people adding more spice to their food might be using less salt, which could benefit their cardiovascular health. The complexity of China’s regional cuisines also makes it challenging to draw conclusions about diet and health, even in such a large study drawing on data from 10 different geographic areas.
The typical Chinese diet, of course, also differs from how most Americans eat. That makes the applicability of the findings here tenuous.
So if you like your food hot and spicy, go ahead and enjoy your chiles. Using peppers and other spices, Lichtenstein adds, can be a good way to reduce your salt intake. “Certainly, however, there is no evidence that popping a capsaicin-laced pill will do you any good.”