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Why Eating Ginger with Chili Peppers Could Save Your Life

There is a growing body of science supporting the health benefits of capsaicin but also mounting evidence suggesting that it can cause cancer. A team of scientists set out to better understand this contradiction.

by Nick Rose
Sep 10 2016, 5:00pm

Foto: Austin Kirk | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Want to stop going bald? Having arthritis pain? Looking for a cheap and cheerful hallucination? Why not kill some cancer cells while you're at it? Or cheat death altogether? The all-in-one solution is in a single chemical compound.

No, this isn't an infomercial for miracle water or some cure-all magic pill; it's all part of the growing body of science supporting the health benefits of capsaicin—the active component in hot peppers. But if this sounds too good to be true, that's because it is.

Sure enough, there is also mounting evidence suggesting that capsaicin can also cause cancer, meaning that it seems to have both cancer-fighting and cancer-causing properties. But wait! There's more!

READ MORE: How Eating Spicy Foods Can Help You Cheat Death

A recent study has provided an important asterisk to this cancer dichotomy by suggesting that the cancer-causing properties of capsaicin can be cancelled out by 6-gingerol, the chemical that gives ginger its pungent flavor. So, it turns out that chilies and ginger not only taste great together, but may also act in unison to decrease the risk of cancer cells developing—potentially great news for consumers of curry and Szechuan food.

Researchers in China, understandably concerned about the delicious interaction between chilies and ginger, wanted to "further investigate this apparent contradiction" and looked at how these ingredients affect cancer cells by administering capsaicin and 6-gingerol to mice. In order to do so, the study's authors took a group of mice "prone to lung cancer" and administered three separate diets: one with only capsaicin, one with only gingerol, and a final group that was fed both—perhaps a northern Indian curry of sorts.

Their results, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, showed that the mice who were fed only capsaicin did indeed develop lung cancer, while only half of the ginger group did. But the real kicker is that only 20 percent of the capsaicin-plus-ginger group got cancer, pointing toward a delicious and protective interaction between the two compounds.

Obviously, further research will be required to confirm this link in humans. So, while the mysteries and contradictions of capsaicin continue to reveal themselves to us, all we can really do is pair it with some ginger and hope that it's not killing us.