A good Indian restaurant is always a great experience, provided you don’t overestimate your chilli-related pain tolerance. A variety of fresh spices blended together to produce dishes of seemingly endless flavour, often accompanied by a sharp kick to the back of the throat. One of the main ingredients that has the power to make eating a more dynamic experience is chilli. The mystical fruit is one of the defining characteristics of Indian and Asian cuisine. Spicy food isn’t for everyone, however, and can bring as much pain as pleasure, depending on one’s oral sensibilities. As it turns out, Capsaicin, the active ingredient in chilli has been the topic of a whole body of modern research. Here we answer the question: could that eye-watering chilli overdose actually good for us?
Chilli has often been used for folk and holistic medicine as a treatment for various pain symptoms. This may seem counterintuitive – especially if you have ever accidentally touched your eyes after eating a raw chilli. Findings from a 2012 University College London study have shed new light on the subject, however, with capsaicin show to have the ability to help treat certain kinds of pains. Especially when the root is neurological. Neurological pain comes generally from within, where the central nervous system sends pain signals when there isn’t actually an external stimulus causing it.
Spicy food has often been associated with a bad stomach and too many trips to the toilet, but it might be a small price to pay for a longer life. New research has discovered a link between eating spicy food and living longer. A 2015 University of Harvard study into the effects of spicy food on mortality, has provided some potentially groundbreaking results. The mammoth study was pooled from a total of 487,375 people, between 30-79 years of age over a seven-year period. People who ate spicy food nearly every day were found to have had a 14% chance of living longer than those who ate spicy food once a week or less. Results found that participants consuming a lot of spicy food were significantly less likely to die of cancer, heart disease or respiratory disease.
There is no end of pseudo weight-loss foods and supplements out there, but, at least for chilli, there seems to be some evidence of its potentially weight-loss aiding effects. A large body of recent research into the effects of capsaicin on obesity has been promising. A 2017 Peking Medical College meta-study discovered that capsaicin effects the metabolism in a number of ways. Spicy food inhibits our appetite and satiety regulators, causing us to eat less. A fat called brown adipose tissue is also triggered by the ingestion of spicy food, which causes us to expend energy at an increased rate. The capsaicin essentially hacks our metabolism into thinking we are too cold or hot and uses this brown fat to create reserves of energy to help regulate our body temperature. When this capsaicin enters our internal tracts, it triggers increased food flow within the lower intestine and helps our body to produce a certain kind of bacteria that is great at breaking down fats. Both of these changes cause our metabolism to become significantly more efficient at digesting fat.
While there are great benefits to spicing up your diet, some research into the topic has proved controversial. A 2011 University of Minnesota meta-study has highlighted some of the contradictions seemingly present in capsaicin, especially when it comes to cancer. There is evidence in hundreds of studies to suggest that spicy food has the power to inhibit the growth of a variety of cancer cells, at the same time as showing an increased risk of gastric cancer and cancer of the gallbladder. Anne M. Bode Ph.D., the lead researcher in the study, argued that there were epidemiological failures in those studies, followed potentially by misclassifications of data and poor control in their design. This is one area, however, where the science is still inconclusive.
It may be that we have not yet unraveled all the mysteries of capsaicin. While there are many health benefits to eating spicy food, the primary benefit is often the simplest. Chilli adds an entire dimension to the culinary experience and when balanced against the flavours of a dish, provide endless enjoyment and an entire palette of tastes: from bell pepper to jalapeño all the way up to the mind-blowing ghost chilli which provides excessive heat and enjoyment to the audiences of many youtube videos.
Let us know in the comments if you’re a chilli fan or not!