While not everyone likes the hot stuff, mounting evidence suggests that spicy food is good for your health and longevity. Separate studies in recent years have linked the consumption of spicy food with weight loss, pain relief, increased longevity, and a range of anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial effects. While these benefits depend greatly on the type of food in question along with racial factors and the method of consumption - all in all - it seems better to eat spicy food than to avoid it.
According to Wikipedia, a spice is "any seed, fruit, root, bark, berry, bud or vegetable substance primarily used for flavoring, coloring or preserving food." Spices often have antimicrobial properties, which may explain why they are used more often in warmer climates where food is more susceptible to spoiling. While not all spices are "hot", chilli peppers and other popular spices contain a substance known as capsaicin that binds to and depolarises a special class of vanilloid receptors inside our mouth that are also responsible for detecting heat.
According to Lu Qi, associate professor at Harvard School of Public Health and co-author of a study published in the BMJ late last year, "There is accumulating evidence from mostly experimental research to show the benefit of spices or their active components on human health." When the records of 20,224 people were reviewed by the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, people who ate spicy foods six or seven times a week had a 14 percent lower risk of premature death than people who ate spicy foods less than once a week.
It's not just about living longer, however, it seems spicy food can also help us lose weight. A 2011 study by Purdue University discovered that people generally feel more satisfied after eating spicy foods, leading to smaller portions, less post-meal snacking, and weight loss. According to Gregory Thorkelson, an assistant professor in the departments of psychiatry and gastroenterology at the University of Pittsburgh, spicy food also has a positive effect on our metabolism: "And there is some data to show that capsaicin [the ingredient that produces the scorched feeling in your mouth] can increase the ability to burn calories."
Spicy food has also been shown to spark the release of the body's own opioids, help with autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, and destroy harmful bacteria. A recent laboratory study in the United Kingdom even discovered that capsaicin can kill lung and pancreatic cancer cells without harming the surrounding cells, which may explain why people living in Mexico and India tend to have lower rates of some cancers than those who eat a bland western diet.
While spicy food has always been popular in Asia and South America, westerners have long been suspicious of that familiar burning sensation you get from hot food. Despite folklore, however, there’s no evidence that hot food produces ulcerations or injury in the gastrointestinal tract. According to Toronto gastroenterologist Dr. Khursheed Jeejeebhoy, "there is no evidence that spicy food is bad for you... Whenever people have stomach problems, they’ll say, ‘I completely avoid spicy foods in order to heal my stomach.’ There is no evidence they have to do that. Spices in moderation are to be enjoyed."
Image source: SharkPaeCNX / shutterstock.com