The Hot Topic: Is Spicy Food Bad for You?

Doctors and grandmothers alike used to say that spicy food can give you ulcers. And while many still shy away from dishes with jalapenos and cayenne, the popularity of fiery Chinese, Indian, and Mexican food is on the rise. Are the heat-lovers risking their health?

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It is hard to imagine, but before the discovery of America the hottest spices known in China, India, or Europe were black pepper and ginger (the Japanese, of course, had their wasabi). Indeed, all the many varieties of hot peppers come from the New World, and their level of heat is measured on the so-called Scoville scale: from 500 units for a modest peperoncino to a staggering 2 million for the dreadful Carolina Reaper. And while the Reaper may not be great for your health, other hot peppers definitely are!

The many gifts of a chili

We have special heat receptors in our mouth (and all over our body), which warn us whenever we touch a hot frying pan or take a sip of very hot tea. They react to chilies, too; however, spicy food cannot actually hurt our mouth or stomach. On the contrary, it is good for us in many ways:

  • Weight loss. When we eat hot peppers, we do not just feel the heat: they actually heat up our body, intensifying metabolism. Research that chili-eaters burn more calories; besides, spicy food reduces appetite.
  • Healthy heart. The main active chemical in peppers – capsaicin – forces blood vessels to dilate, lowering blood pressure and improving circulation.
  • Anti-bacterial effect. Ancient Mayas used peppers to treat infections, and they were right: studies demonstrate that capsaicin inhibits many kinds of bacteria.
  • Cancer prevention. Studies done in a lab prove that capsaicin can slow the growth of various cancer cells and even kill them.
  • Ulcer remedy. Yes, this is true: contrary to what your grandma said, hot peppers actually kill the bacteria that cause ulcers (details here).
  • Live longer. A recent large-scale study in China, which followed 500 000 people for many years, found that those who ate spicy food almost every day had a 14% less risk of dying prematurely – however, it only applied to those who did not drink alcohol.

As you see, the benefits are many, which should be great news for those who already put chilis in all their dishes. But what about the people who cannot tolerate spicy food? There is hope for them too: according to reasearch, sensitivity to spiciness decreases as one eats pepper more often. You just have to start with small amounts and gradually build up the heat: put a pinch of cayenne into meat, use hot sauce together with ketchup, and try cooking some curries at home. Persist – and in a few months you may find you have developed a taste for chilies. Some insist that chili stops them from feeling the taste of food, but it is not quite true: the burn simply attracts all our attention when we are not used it it.

Start your own pepper garden

If you already have an ulcer or another serious digestion disorder, you may have to keep away from chilies, but you can still experience their benefits by taking capsaicin pills. For all others, options are many: from gentler poblanos to Thai bird’s eye chilies to fiery habaneros. You won’t find most of those in your supermarket, but luckily peppers are easy to grow at home in a pot. There are whole online stores selling nothing but pepper seeds – like this one, for example. Try buying and planting a few – orange, yellow, even white – there is no better introduction to the world of spicy food than your own habanero.

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