Eating spicy food more frequently as part of a daily diet is now associated with a lower risk of health-related death, suggests a new study by Chinese, US and UK scientists.
And that’s good news for all those Cook Islanders who enjoy fresh locally-grown chillis with their food.
The researchers looked at almost 500,000 adults and found that those who ate spicy foods at least once a week were 10-14 percent less likely to die from health-related conditions, than those who ate spicy food less often.
All participants completed a questionnaire about their general health, physical measurements, and consumption of spicy foods, and red meat, vegetable and alcohol.
Participants with a history of cancer, heart disease, and stroke were excluded from the study, and factors such as age, marital status, level of education, and physical activity were accounted for.
During an average follow-up of seven years, there were 20,224 deaths out of 500,000 participants.
Compared with participants who ate spicy foods less than once a week, those who consumed spicy foods one or two days a week reduced their risk of death by 10 per cent.
Those who ate spicy foods three to five and six or seven days a week were at a 14 per cent reduced risk of death.
The association was similar in both men and women, and was stronger in those who did not consume alcohol.
Fresh and dried chilli peppers were the most commonly used spices in those who reported eating spicy foods weekly, and further analysis showed those who consumed fresh chilli tended to have a lower risk of death from cancer, ischaemic heart disease, and diabetes.
So what is it about spicy foods? The study points to the benefits of capsaicin, a bioactive ingredient in chilli peppers, which has been previously linked to health perks such as increased fat burning.
Folk medicine practitioners also say capsaicin can help fight infection and stimulate the kidneys, lungs and heart.
To be clear, this new research found an ‘association’ between death and spicy food consumption.
An editorial published with the study cautions that this is not definitive. As a result, experts emphasise the need for more research before a connection between these ingredients can be scientifically established.
The author of the study believes the protective effect associated with spicy foods would indeed translate across cultures, but bio-psychologist John Hayes says care is needed.
People have to consider that when talking about spicy food, it can mean vastly different things, with different health implications, he says.
So before you make a run for the hot sauce, Hayes says more research is needed to qualify what spicy entails and the various ingredients, which the current study does not break down.
"This is not an excuse to go out and eat 24 wings, and then rationalise it by claiming they are going to make you live longer," says Hayes.
"When you're looking at a whole food, versus the individual component, we have to be very cautious."