- According to researchers at the Cleveland Clinic, people who regularly eat chile peppers may be 26 and 23 percent less likely to die from heart disease or cancer, respectively.
- People who eat chile peppers were also found to have a 25 percent reduced risk of death from any cause.
- Spicy chile peppers produce a substance called capsaicin that has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties.
- Experts note that despite these initial findings, randomized-controlled trials are still needed to determine the amount, form, frequency, and type of chile peppers that must be consumed to optimize health benefits.
- There are also notable risks in consuming foods high in capsaicin, including irritation of the mouth, stomach, and intestines.
Researchers from the Cleveland Clinic reviewed data from more than 570,000 people in the United States, Italy, China, and Iran.
They found that people who eat chile peppers may be 26 percent less likely to die from heart disease and 23 percent less likely to die from cancer compared to spice-averse people.
This news comes in contrast to previous studies that have shown a positive correlation between consuming red chile peppers and occurrence of certain types of cancer, including gall bladder, stomach, throat, and mouth cancer.
However, this data comes from animal studies and observational methods, so cause and effect can’t be exclusively determined.
The Cleveland Clinic’s review also found chile pepper consumers have a 25 percent reduced risk of death from any cause.
“The multiple benefits and the magnitude of their benefits are striking,” said Penny M. Kris-Etherton, PhD, RDN, Evan Pugh University professor of nutritional sciences and chair for the Council on Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health.
However, it’s important to note that it’s not the chile peppers themselves but rather the capsaicin they produce that helps reduce risk.
“Capsaicin has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties, offering potentially protective benefits for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity,” said Mary-Jon Ludy, PhD, RDN, FAND, an associate professor in the department of nutrition at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
Capsaicin is also what gives peppers their heat and spice profiles.
“The scope of this research — including more than half a million participants from four countries on three continents — is very commendable,” Ludy said.
Peppers vary widely in their capsaicin content.
From the bell pepper that produces no capsaicin to the middle-range spicy jalapeño to the red savina habanero, the spiciness of each pepper can be found on the Scoville scale.
“The Scoville scale is a subjective way to describe the heat, or spiciness, of peppers,” Ludy said.
“It was created by a pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville in the early 1900s. To determine Scoville heat unit (SHU) ratings, a panel of trained testers sampled capsaicin after it has been extracted from the pepper and diluted in sugar water.
“SHU ratings reflect the amount that capsaicin must be diluted for the heat to disappear. The scale starts at 0 for bell peppers and tops out at 16 million for pure capsaicin. In between, you find pepperoncini (100), poblano (1,000), serrano (10,000), habanero (100,000), and ghost peppers (1 million),” Ludy said.
She noted that despite the popularity of the Scoville scale to describe the spiciness of peppers, it’s not particularly accurate since sensitivities to spicy foods are highly variable between people.
“An important caveat is that people who eat chile peppers are part of a larger dietary pattern. Randomized-controlled trials are needed to confirm these findings and determine the amount, form, frequency, and type of chile peppers that must be consumed to optimize health benefits,” Ludy said.
The benefits of capsaicin stem from their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. These effects play a beneficial role in promoting metabolic and vascular health, both of which can help in reaching and maintaining a moderate weight for your body type.
This positive effect on cholesterol and metabolism has the added benefit of helping with heart health and weight management.
The drawbacks of eating hot peppers also come from their capsaicin content.
Capsaicin binds to the pain receptors in your mouth, causing the characteristic burning sensation we associate with spicy foods.
“Readers may wish to incorporate chile peppers in their diet,” Kris-Etherton said. “However, I suggest they do this wisely… go slowly.”
She advised against going overboard on eating chile peppers because consuming too many may cause problems.
Experts say eating too much capsaicin can lead to irritation of the mouth, stomach, and intestines.
“People may develop vomiting and diarrhea. Inhaling sprays containing capsaicin can cause coughing, difficulty breathing, production of tears, nausea, nasal irritation, and temporary blindness,” Kris-Etherton said.
“Incorporate small amounts of chile peppers into a healthy diet, like the one that the American Heart Association recommends,” she said.
“Chile peppers are great for growing in garden beds during the summer or indoor containers year-round,” Ludy said. This way, you’ll always have access to fresh or freshly dried peppers.
You can use chile peppers as seasoning in foods instead of salt. Consider sprinkling them onto vegetables, adding into soups and stews, and using in marinades or dry rubs for lean protein foods.
“Fresh and dried chile peppers can be eaten in a variety of ways,” Ludy said.
“Cooks can use chile peppers to season vegetables, stir-fries, soups, sauces, and curries,” she told Healthline.
“Diners can simply add chile pepper flakes to pastas, pizzas, or salads at the kitchen table,” Ludy said.
“For those who don’t enjoy the burn, pairing chile peppers with healthy fats (like avocados and nuts) can help since capsaicin is a fat-soluble compound,” she said.
The best way to add capsaicin into your diet is to eat a variety of capsaicin-producing peppers, experts say.
“I recommend that people eat chile peppers as chile peppers that are incorporated in their diets, and not as chile pepper supplements or capsaicin supplements,” Kris-Etherton said.
Ludy’s answer on whether to use capsaicin supplements is also a clear no.
Ludy said the
“This suggests that the burn of spicy foods, induced by capsaicin, is important to the benefits of chile peppers,” she told Healthline.