One of the hottest trends in foods these days is nutraceuticals or functional foods. Functional foods taste great but they come with added benefits. They have medicinal properties that help us fend off or recover from disease or help us heal from injury.
Many of the world’s spiciest cuisines are vibrant with functional foods like garlic, chili peppers and powders, cinnamon, and turmeric. Some spicy foods set the mouth on fire and make us break out in a sweat (garlic, chilies, curries) but others, like cinnamon and turmeric, deliver bold flavor without the pain.
A number of scientific studies have documented the healthful benefits of spicy functional foods, including a very large one from the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences. This particular study finds that people who eat a diet rich in spicy flavors are less likely to die from certain cancers, ischemic heart disease (lack of adequate blood flow to the heart), and respiratory diseases. It also indicates women who eat spicy foods enjoy greater nutraceutical benefit than men do.
The researchers turned to the China Kadoorie Biobank, which houses medical data of more than half a million adults living throughout the nation. The research team identified 487,375 people between 30 and 79 years of age who enrolled for the study between 2004 and 2008. Enrollment involved completing a questionnaire asking about the consumption of alcohol, red meat, spicy foods, and vegetables.
Follow-up questionnaires were used throughout the study to assess dietary consistency for 5% of the study participants. The average follow-up time was 7.2 years. Within this group, 20,224 people died during the study period.
The link between spicy diet and death caused by cancer, ischemic heart disease, and respiratory diseases included:
- 14% lower rate of death when spicy foods were eaten 3 to 7 days a week.
- 10% lower death rate when spicy foods were eaten once or twice a week.
For the study participants, fresh and dried chili peppers proved to be the spice of choice. People who regularly ate fresh chilies were found to be at reduced risk of death from diabetes as well as from cancer and ischemic heart disease.
The medicinal benefits of spicy foods are varied. Some have antimicrobial properties, killing bacteria, viruses, and fungi that invade the body. Some help regulate insulin, blood pressure, cholesterol, and weight. Others ease pain, clear the nasal and respiratory passages, invigorate the mind, boost immunity, enliven libido, tame inflammation, and aid digestion.
Jeya Henry, director of the Functional Food Centre at Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom, says, “My gut intuition is that in medicinal plants, one plus two equals four. But pharmaceutical companies want to sell a single compound.” He is a strong advocate for getting the most medicinal value from the foods one eats by consuming a variety of spicy functional foods rather than from single-ingredient supplements. One naturally occurring medicinal compound probably complements and enhances the benefits offered by others, according to Henry, who was not a part of the Chinese study.
- Lv, Jun, et al. "Consumption of spicy foods and total and cause specific mortality: population based cohort study." BMJ (2015). Web. 14 Aug. 2015.
- Stafford, Ned. "The spice of life." Royal Society of Chemistry. Royal Society of Chemistry, Oct. 2009. Web. 14 Aug. 2015.