People who eat chili peppers may be less likely to die from heart disease or cancer and may live longer than those who don’t eat them, according to new research that will be presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2020 on Tuesday, November 17.
Previous research has found that chili peppers can have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anticancer and blood-glucose regulating effects due to capsaicin, the main chemical compound in chili peppers that gives the food its spiciness. But this particular research analyzed more than 4,729 studies from five leading global health databases, which led to some major conclusions.
Overall, the study analyzed health and dietary records of more than 570,000 people in the U.S., Italy, China and Iran, comparing chili pepper-eaters to those who rarely or never ate the spicy food. The analysis found that people who ate chili peppers had a 26 percent less risk of dying from heart disease, a 23 percent less risk of death from cancer and a 25 percent less risk of dying from any cause.
Dr. Bo Xu, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Heart, Vascular & Thoracic Institute in Cleveland, Ohio, and the study’s lead author tells Yahoo Life that experts believe the spicy ingredient in chili peppers likely plays a role. “It’s probably related to the capsaicin,” he says. But, he points out, his study didn’t look for the reason behind this — it just tried to find a link.
Xu says he wanted to analyze the link between chili peppers and health in the first place because he’s interested in the role that diet plays in heart health. “The Mediterranean diet has been promoted for cardiovascular health and I became interested to see if any particular food ingredients would be beneficial,” he says. “I’ve been eating chili peppers for a long time, so I wanted to look into this as well.”
Jamie Alan, assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University, tells Yahoo Life that the study is “really interesting.” But, like Xu, she notes that there are still many unanswered questions about why chili peppers seem to be linked to health. However, she says, the capsaicin does seem to be a big factor.
The Mayo Clinic has previously provided information on capsaicin, noting that the ingredient may help both with heart health and boosting the immune system and has been used in topical ointments for joint pain. “There really could be important benefits that you could have from eating hot chili peppers, especially in their ability to reduce some of these immune cell responses that are driving atherosclerosis and heart attacks," said Dr. DeLisa Fairweather, a heart disease researcher at Mayo Clinic on the site.
But before you run out and buy up all the chili peppers you can find, know this: While there’s a link between eating chili peppers and a lower risk of heart disease and cancer, it’s not proven that having the spicy foods actually lowers risk. Meaning, it’s possible that something else entirely could be behind the lowered risk.
Another caveat to keep in mind, per Xu: The amount and type of chili pepper individuals consumed varied, making it difficult for researchers to say exactly how much, how often and what type of chili pepper you’d need to get to reap the benefits. “Scientifically, if you really wanted to answer the question of which type, what amount, and frequency, a randomized control trial would be needed to answer that question,” he says.
At this point, Alan says, “it's unclear whether it's actually the chili peppers or whether it's an overall diet effect.” That said, chili peppers do have some known perks. “Chili peppers have been shown to produce satiety and they have also shown to boost metabolism,” she says. “It is safe to say that there might be a benefit, although it's unclear how much or what type of chilis to eat.”
If you’re not a fan of chili peppers, Xu says you shouldn’t force yourself to eat them — the data isn’t strong enough yet. “If you already eat chili peppers and you like them, this encourages that,” he says. “We’re not going so far as to give recommendations yet, but I think this at least perhaps provides incentives or encouragement for people to give chili peppers a go.”
“It just goes to show that diet has a big role in your health overall,” he adds.
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