Chili peppers have been shown to have lots of health benefits. What is the link between chili peppers and the risk of heart disease? What is the connection between chili peppers and stroke? How about chili peppers and your cravings for salt? And lastly, do chili peppers help with weight loss? Let’s look at the evidence behind these links.
Chili peppers are the foods of plants from the genus capsicum. The earliest consumption dates back to 7500 B.C. The active ingredient and what we’re going to focus on is called capsaicin.
Before we get into the research, it’s interesting to note that chili peppers can range in how spicy they are. This is measured through the Scoville Heat Unit (SHU). The range is from zero all the way up to 16 million. As a reference, bell peppers have a SHU of 0 while pure capsaicin sits at about 16 million SHU. Here are the top ten chili peppers in terms of spiciness:
- Pure capsaicin: 16,000,000 SHU
- Carolina Reaper: 2,200,000 SHU
- Trinidad Moruga Scorpion: 2,009,231 SHU
- Trinidad Scorpion Butch T: 1,463,700 SHU
- Naga Viper: 1,382,118 SHU
- Bhut jolokia (ghost pepper): 1,041,427 SHU
- Red Savina habanero: 580,000 SHU
- Scotch Bonnet: 350,000 SHU
- Jamaican Hot: 350,000 SHU
- Habanero: 350,000 SHU
Heart and Brain Health
At the American Heart Association, Scientific sessions in 2020, a research study was presented looking at the effects of chili peppers on heart and overall health. In the study, the authors synthesized dietary records from four separate studies, looking at over 570,000 individuals. These studies looked at populations in the U.S., China, Iran, and Italy.
The authors found that regular consumption of chili peppers was linked with a 26% reduction in cardiovascular mortality. There was also a 23% decrease in cancer mortality and a 25% decrease in all-cause mortality. One of the limitations of the study was not defining how often or how much chili pepper was consumed. However, previous studies with similar findings have defined regular consumption as 4 or more times per week.
In another study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, Bonaccio and colleagues looked at 22,811 Italian adults from the Moli-Sani cohort in Italy. This cohort was already following a heart-healthy Mediterranean diet so the question was did chili peppers have any additional benefit?
The authors followed the participants for 8.2 years. They used a validated food frequency questionnaire from the EPIC trial. However, they only collected the data once at the beginning of their study.
The authors found that regular consumption of chili peppers (4 times per week or more) was linked to a 23% reduction in all-cause mortality; a 34% reduction in the risk of cardiovascular mortality; a 44% reduction in Ischemic heart disease. When the authors looked at the risk of cerebrovascular death, the data was even stronger. There was a 61% decrease.
Some of the limitations of this study were that the results are correlation, not causation and there is always the possibility of residual confounders. These are items that the researchers hadn’t thought of and could affect the study outcomes. In this particular study, they only did the food frequency questionnaire at the beginning of the study. It’s very likely that over 8.2 years of research, things could have changed in terms of their eating patterns. However, because there are so many studies concerning capsaicin and chili peppers that are consistent with these findings, it gives us more evidence that there’s likely to be a link between chili peppers and heart and health.
Can eating chili peppers affect your cravings for salt? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. A study published in the Journal of Hypertension showed that people who consumed chili peppers regularly had lower salt cravings. The biological mechanism that likely explains this has to with an area of our brain called the insula and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC).
It turns out that salt cravings and desire to eat salt are linked to the insula and OFC. Capsaicin enhances the metabolic activity in these areas. Thus, people who eat chili peppers regularly are activating these areas and have less cravings for salt.
When it comes to cancer, chili peppers are linked to a reduced risk of numerous cancers like colon cancer, lung cancer, bladder cancer, and more. In vitro studies have shown that capsaicin can be beneficial for triple-negative breast cancer cells, non-small cell lung cancer cells. However, some data has conflicted these findings and shown the opposite effect.
In a meta-analysis of 39 studies, the highest vs lowest consumption of chili peppers was associated with a 76% higher risk of cancer, especially gastric cancer. However, no significant association was observed in women, esophageal cancer or gallbladder cancer.
Lastly, when it comes to weight loss, chili peppers have many different ways to help us shed some pounds. They help to suppress our bodies from storing fat. They increase the breakdown of fat through a process called lipolysis. They can even help reduce our sense of fullness and decrease our appetite.
The bottom line here is that adding a little bit of spice to our foods can not only help protect us from a number of serious conditions but we may even lose a little weight at the same time.