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How Eating Spicy Foods Can Help You Cheat Death

A seven-year study has found that regularly eating chili peppers can reduce your risk of early death by about 14 percent. Bring on the Cholula.
Hilary Pollack
Los Angeles, US
Photo via Flickr user Garrett Ziegler

It's no secret that America is late to the game on the joys of eating super-spicy food, finally warming up to fiery habaneros, mouth-numbing Szechuan peppercorns, and everything in between.

READ: My Szechuan Restaurant Is So Spicy that a Customer Called the Cops on Me

Why? Because it's delicious. And sure, there's also the masochistic appeal of sweating your way through a bowl of pho so doused with sriracha that the broth is crimson.


In the past 15 years, the US has seen 150-percent growth in its domestic hot sauce market, making it the eighth fastest-growing industry in the US. Looks like we're finally ready to make like Homer Simpson and trip out on some seriously hot peppers.

But now you can tack on another reason to stop worrying and learn to love chili paste: it could actually help you live longer. And this isn't just the advice of a Korean grandmother who wants to make sure you put enough gochujang on your bibimbap.

The results of a seven-year study published yesterday in the medical journal BMJ reveal that there are measurable links between the consumption of spicy food and a lower risk of death in middle and older age brackets.

A team of international researchers led by the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences studied nearly 500,000 men and women in China who were between the ages of 30 and 79 at the beginning of the study in 2004 to 2008, questioning the subjects about their health, physicality, alcohol intake, and eating habits (including their intakes of red meat, vegetables, and spicy foods). Then, seven years later, they followed up to see who was still around.


Habanero peppers. Photo via Flickr user jeffreyww

They found that 20,224—or about 4.1 percent—of the participants died during that window. Accounting for factors such as age, marital status, education level, exercise habits, and a family history of disease, the research team found that people who ate the most spicy food—at least once or twice a week—had a 10 percent reduced risk of death relative to those who rarely or never turned up the heat. Even better, for hot sauce addicts: both men and women who ate spicy foods almost every day had a 14 percent lower risk of death.


Of course, there are many different types of spicy food—a Buffalo wing and a plate of Xi'an-style noodles are not exactly congruent. But in this instance, the most consumed "spicy spice" was chili peppers. Fresh chili peppers in particular—as opposed to dried—were tied to lower risks of death from cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, possibly because of their high levels of capsaicin and vitamin C. Capsaicin, the active component in chilies that makes them spicy, has been shown to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and even stress-relieving properties in previous studies.

And did we mention that after the initial inferno of biting into a giant glob of chili paste subsides, you get a lovely rush of endorphins?

READ: Hot Sauce Might Have Saved This Man's Life

The researchers are quick to point out that the data gathered in this study was self-reported and observational, meaning that a true cause-and-effect relationship can't be verified without further insight. However, the team hopes that more investigation will be done into the connection, possibly leading to improved dietary recommendations and other developments.

Worth noting: lead study author Lu Qi, of Harvard's T. H. Chan School of Public Health and Brigham and Women's Hospital, also warned CBS News about the possible pitfalls of eating loads of spicy food for people with sensitive stomachs. "For those who are affected by digestive disorders such as a stomach ulcer, I would be cautious about eating spicy foods," he said.

Fair enough. But we might as well get the industrial-sized jar of sambal oelek next time, anyway.

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