A new article by medical student Mustafa Chopan and Professor Benjamin Littenberg from the University of Vermont published in PLOS ONE, found that people who eat hot chili peppers reduce their chance of dying by 13 percent compared to people who abstained in the study's duration.
The authors relied on data from the National Health And Nutritional Examination Survey, a representative survey conducted between 1988 and 1994 of more than 16,000 American adults who were tracked in subsequent years. The data was adjusted for various other variables, including demographic, lifestyle and other conditions, and the results remained robust.
Compared to the people who did not consume hot red chili peppers, those who did were more likely to be “younger, male, white, Mexican-American, married, and to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, and consume more vegetables and meats . . . had lower HDL-cholesterol, lower income, and less education,” the authors said.
A large study in China, published by the BMJ in 2015, found a similar result in a more general study. This is particularly significant because culinary and cultural habits in China and the United States are quite distinct. The fact that spicy foods are associated with reduced mortality in such diverse places suggests that there might be something clinically important going on.
So if eating chili peppers really leads to a longer life, what could be the underlying mechanism?
“Although the mechanism by which peppers could delay mortality is far from certain, Transient Receptor Potential (TRP) channels, which are primary receptors for pungent agents such as capsaicin (the principal component in chili peppers), may in part be responsible for the observed relationship,” the authors write.
Capsaicin is the component that makes spicy foods spicy. Too much of it is actually dangerous — it is the active ingredient in pepper spray.
But at levels typically consumed for pleasure (and pain), it appears to have beneficial effects. The authors note that it may affect our body at the cellular level, helping to reduce obesity and ease blood flow; it also may also positively alter the bacteria that live in human intestines.
Though the data on the causes of death of the people in the sample were sparse, preliminary indications suggest that reductions in death from cardiovascular conditions — heart disease or stroke — may have been the driving factor in the association.
Prior findings have suggested that capsaicin may have a role in fighting cancer, as well.
“Because our study adds to the generalizability of previous findings, chili peppers, or even spicy food consumption, may become a dietary recommendation and/or fuel further research in the form of clinical trials,” said Chopan.