(CN) — Chili peppers are used to punch up the flavor of many dishes but scientists say their benefits are not limited to the culinary realm — they may also significantly reduce a person’s risk of dying from heart disease or cancer.
Chilis have long been known to impart a range of benefits to consumers, with their anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anticancer and blood-glucose regulating properties thanks to their capsaicin content, which is the naturally occurring compound that gives the peppers their characteristic heat. They’re also believed to help with pain and weight loss. Chilis are full of vitamins C, B6 and K1, potassium, copper and vitamin A — nearly everything a growing person needs, albeit in miniscule amounts.
Humans have been eating and enjoying chili peppers for around 8,000 years. They’re among the oldest crops cultivated in North America and can originally be traced back to northeastern Mexico. Christopher Columbus and his crew were the first Europeans to encounter chili peppers, who coined the term in reference to the also-spicy black pepper genus “Piper” which was already known to them. Portuguese sailors then went on to spread chilis across Asia and India where they flourished into the modern age.
To investigate other health benefits that may be derived from these spicy peppers, researchers dug through 4,729 studies from five leading global health databases that looked at chili pepper consumption among 570,000 individuals in the U.S., China and Iran.
They compared the individual health outcomes of those who ate chili peppers regularly with those who rarely or never ate them and presented their findings at the Scientific Sessions 2020 virtual meeting on Tuesday, hosted by the American Heart Association.
The researchers discovered a 26% relative reduction in cardiovascular mortality, a 23% relative reduction in cancer mortality and a 25% relative reduction in all-cause mortality.
“We were surprised to find that in these previously published studies, regular consumption of chili pepper was associated with an overall risk-reduction of all cause, CVD and cancer mortality. It highlights that dietary factors may play an important role in overall health,” senior author Bo Xu, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic Heart, Vascular & Thoracic Institute said in a statement.
“The exact reasons and mechanisms that might explain our findings, though, are currently unknown,” he added. “Therefore, it is impossible to conclusively say that eating more chili pepper can prolong life and reduce deaths, especially from cardiovascular factors or cancer. More research, especially evidence from randomized controlled studies, is needed to confirm these preliminary findings.”
Xu acknowledged a number of limitations inherent to this type of study, including the limited amount of health data available on individuals, and the variability in chili pepper consumption among participants. These limitations mean at this point it is hard to draw conclusions as to the optimal amount of chili pepper consumption and which particular variety of chili would impart the greatest benefit.
"I think the findings are really quite remarkable actually from the standpoint of associations with multiple different diseases and end points, so that the authors found benefits of chili pepper consumption on all-cause mortality, cardiovascular mortality, and cancer mortality,” Penny Kris-Etherton, professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University, said in a related video.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.