Chili peppers have been a hot research topic recently. Studies show this spicy food can help fight inflammation, stabilize blood sugar, improve digestion, ease joint pain…and promote cardiovascular health.
Capsaicin — the principal compound in chili peppers — has been shown in clinical trials to protect against major cardiovascular disease risk factors like atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, and obesity.
And now, a large new study shows that eating chili peppers can reduce the risk of death from heart disease and strokes by 13%.
Amazingly, this benefit occurred even in men who smoked, drank alcohol, didn’t exercise regularly, and ate a lot of red meat.
The sizzling results of the latest chili study
For 23 years, scientists at the University of Vermont College of Medicine gathered dietary and lifestyle data on more than 16,000 people.1
The researchers discovered that the participants who ate chili peppers tended to be younger, Mexican-American men. These men were typically married, ate more meat, drank alcohol, smoked cigarettes, and also ate more vegetables than the study participants who didn’t eat hot peppers.
This likely means the non-pepper eaters basically followed the government’s “nanny” dietary recommendations, eating more carbs and grains (since they ate less meat and vegetables) — and, of course, not drinking or smoking.
The study reveals just what that did for them. Hint: It didn’t make them less likely to die prematurely.
In fact, taking into account consumption of foods with other spices, as well as lifestyle, physical activity, and social factors, the researchers still found that the people who ate chili peppers had a 13% reduction in death rates.
In other words, just eating these peppers was able to benefit men regardless of physical activity, and despite drinking, smoking, and eating more meat.
Of course, chili peppers are a celebrated and delicious part of the Mexican-American menu. Prior studies (unrelated to pepper consumption) have also shown better health and longevity in Mexican-American men, despite having higher putative risk factors like drinking, smoking, and lower socioeconomic status, on average.
Chili pepper works as a spice or a supplement
Along with heart-healthy capsaicin, chili peppers also have plenty of B vitamins and carotenoids, and are very high in vitamin C.
And like other spices such as garlic, ginger, and turmeric, chilies have also been demonstrated to have anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antioxidant effects.
If you don’t already eat these nutritional powerhouses, there are simple ways to get their benefits…either through your diet or by taking supplements.
First of all, if you’re scared off by their spiciness, remember that chili peppers are eaten with a meal — not as a meal. A little bit goes a long way.
One option is Indian curries, which can contain both turmeric and chili peppers. These dishes could be called the world’s first dietary supplement formulations. In fact, the use of spices all over the world for thousands of years basically demonstrates the principles of sound dietary supplementation today.
So even if you can’t or don’t eat dishes with hot spices, you can still get their active ingredients (and health benefits) in dietary supplements — with a good dose of science that backs up their use.
It is always best to follow a healthy overall diet and lifestyle, and not try to overcome bad habits by taking pills — whether drugs or dietary supplements. But this study shows that chili peppers can help lower your risk of premature death, even when your diet or lifestyle isn’t “ideal,” at least according to the nanny mainstream recommendations.
Challenging what “everyone knows” about chili peppers
When I was working with former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop on developing dietary supplements for joint pain 15 years ago, I strongly urged that he include capsaicin in his new joint-health formula.
Soon after that, and not long before the world changed forever on 9/11, I was out riding horses with my daughter. I like to eat curries and other dishes with chili peppers whenever possible, and I’ve also found horseback riding to be about as good as anything for my joints, not to mention the other benefits for mind and body.
(President Ronald Reagan once said “there’s something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” More recent presidents have also brought to mind the analogy of the horse, but I will leave it to you to conclude which half of the horse!)
That day, I received an urgent phone call (on my state-of-the-art, flip-top phone — which I still use) from one of Dr. Koop’s technical staff. He was very concerned about my capsaicin recommendation.
He insisted “everybody knows” that capsaicin is used “only” topically on the skin around joints — not taken internally. I responded that capsaicin is more effective orally, as a dietary supplement. That way, it’s delivered from the blood directly into the joints, after being absorbed from the GI tract.
He said we couldn’t do that because people don’t eat capsaicin. I proceeded to describe the prodigious amounts of capsaicin consumed by hundreds of millions of people around the world every day, in chili peppers.
Chilies are a key part of the diet in South America, South Asia, and East Asia — and virtually everywhere else the climate is hot — because they facilitate sweating and cooling of the body. And capsaicin’s antimicrobial effects help ensure food safety in hot environments.
So I suggested we could call the supplement ingredient hot red chili pepper, instead of capsaicin, because “everybody knows” people can eat red peppers.
Unfortunately, Dr. Koop’s start-up supplement company never got off the ground, and his products never saw the light of day, in the aftermath of 9/11. But I have been able to put just as much, and more, solid science into my Smart Science dietary supplements for you.
1“The Association of Hot Red Chili Pepper Consumption and Mortality: A Large Population-Based Cohort Study.” PLoS One. 2017 Jan 9;12(1):e0169876.