It’s a myth that if a food is good for us it probably tastes like cardboard. For proof we need look no further than the beneficial properties of herbs and spices. In fact a new study reveals that frequent consumption of spicy-hot foods may reduce all-cause mortality and in some cases cause-specific mortality. The study which followed a prospective cohort of 487375 participants aged 30-79 living in China determined that spicy food consumption was inversely associated with total mortality after adjustment for other potential risk factors. (Risk factors controlled for included marital status age level of education and physical activity.) Compared to individuals who ate spicy foods less than once a week the adjusted hazard ratios for death were 0.90 (95% CI interval 0.84 - 0.96) 0.86 (0.80 - 0.92) and 0.86 (0.82 - 0.90) for those who consumed spicy food 1 or 2 3 to 5 and 6 to 7 days per week respectively. (The absolute mortality rates were 6.1 4.4 4.3 and 5.8 deaths per 1000 person-years for subjects who ate spicy foods less than once a week 1 or 2 3 to 5 and 6 or 7 days per week respectively.) more Participants who consumed spicy foods 6 or 7 days a week showed a 14% reduction in relative risk for total mortality compared to those who ate spicy foods less than once per week. When alcohol consumption was looked at as an additional factor the seemingly beneficial influence of spicy foods on mortality was stronger in non-drinkers. Regarding cause-specific mortality inverse associations were noted between spicy food consumption and deaths due to cancer respiratory diseases and ischemic heart diseases. It is important to note that this was an observational study based on food frequency questionnaires which are known to be somewhat unreliable. Nevertheless the antioxidant anti-inflammatory and potentially chemo-protective properties of popular culinary spices and herbs such as ginger turmeric curcumin rosemary oregano black pepper and hot chili peppers are well established.
Another way spicy foods might confer health benefits is by helping to induce the secretion of digestive enzymes and fortify the brush border of the small intestine. With an ever-expanding list of chronic health conditions being linked to poor digestive function it may well be that the influence of spices on the digestive system could be the reason behind the decreased all-cause mortality found in the Chinese study. Better overall digestive function leads to more complete breakdown of foods and better absorption of nutrients which can influence health positively throughout the whole body. A study in rats indicated that black pepper red pepper and ginger extracts stimulated brush border enzymes in the jejunum. They also led to beneficial changes in the structure of the intestine; specifically there was an increase in the length of microvilli thereby increasing the absorptive surface and ultimately enhancing the extraction of nutrients from food.
Piperine from black pepper stimulates the secretion of pancreatic digestive enzymes and reduces gastrointestinal transit time. Ginger has been recognized since ancient times for its influence on healthy digestion and is often included in teas formulated to alleviate an upset stomach. Mixtures that included turmeric red chili black pepper and cumin were shown to enhance the activity of pancreatic lipase amylase and chymotrypsin in rats by 40% 16% and 77% respectively. This mixture also stimulated increased production of bile with a greater concentration of active bile acid. In rats fed a high-fat diet ginger piperine capsaicin and curcumin enhanced secretion of bile and pancreatic enzymes. Moreover they also prevented the accumulation of triglycerides in the liver and reduced the activity of lipogenic enzymes while increasing activity of hormone-sensitive lipase which is instrumental in releasing fatty acids from fat cells in order to be burned as fuel elsewhere.
Beyond the fact that spices themselves have beneficial effects these effects might be compounded by the likelihood that the spices were added to healthful nutritious foods cooked at home in lieu of processed foods that are high in sugar refined grains and vegetable oils. So it may be that people who frequently consume spicy foods consume these spices in the context of a diet that would be healthful even without the spices. For example a curry stew made with fish or grass-fed lamb organic vegetables coconut milk and lots of turmeric ginger cayenne and other spices may influence health differently than say spicy-hot chicken wings eaten with a side of fries and washed down with a beer.