Hot Red Chili Peppers May Be the Secret to Longer Life

Public Domain. Iwan Gabovitch

The more you eat spicy foods, the longer you may stave off death.

If you love spicy foods, then you may have more years to enjoy them. A new study, conducted by the University of Vermont and published earlier this month in PLoS One, has found that adults who consumed hot red chili peppers had a 13 percent lower risk of death, compared to those who did not.

This will not come as a surprise to many cultures, both historical and modern, that have long believed in the power of spices and herbs to maintain and improve human health; but there has been relatively little research in this area, as most food studies focus on macro- and micro-nutrients. The most significant study comes from China, showing an inverse relationship between chili pepper consumption and mortality, but no research has been done on this scale in North America.

In order to complete this particular study, the researchers compiled data from the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey III (NHANES) that ran from 1988 to 1994, with vital status reported by 2011. The 16,000 study participants were asked how often they eat hot red chili peppers, not including ground red chili pepper:

“‘Hot red chili peppers’ could include a variety of different types, and may represent a narrower selection than seen in the Chinese study (perhaps because of the qualifier ‘red’). With the exception of ground peppers, the data do not allow for delineation between fresh or dried peppers.”

The results show that adults who consumed hot red chili peppers died later than those who did not. While the reasons for this are not certain, the researchers have a few ideas. The capsaicin (the principal component in chili peppers that gives them their heat) may stimulate cellular mechanisms against obesity, which leads to decreased risk of cardiovascular, metabolic and lung diseases. Capsaicin may also defend against heart disease and possesses antimicrobial properties that may indirectly affect the host by altering the gut microbiota.

Interestingly, the study’s ‘typical’ chili pepper-eaters engaged in some risky health behaviors, such as smoking and drinking alcohol. Perhaps the fact that hot red chili peppers are most commonly eaten alongside healthy whole foods, often vegetable- or meat-based, provided additional protection. (After all, they’re not exactly the kind of thing one wants to eat plain.)

“Compared with participants who did not consume hot red chili peppers, those who did consume them were more likely to be younger, male, white, Mexican-American, married, and to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, and consume more vegetables and meats. They had lower HDL-cholesterol, lower income, and less education.”

As mentioned above, the information in this study was collected between 1988 and 1994. It’s intriguing to think of how the American diet has evolved over the past 23 years. Without a doubt, chili pepper consumption has expanded significantly since then and far more people from various ethnic backgrounds eat them on a regular basis. The researchers recommend further study:

“Such evidence may lead to new insights into the relationships between diet and health, updated dietary recommendations, and the development of new therapies.”