Could chili really be the spice of longer life?

Recent research suggests that people who regularly eat spicy food may have a lower risk of premature death from cancer or coronary and respiratory diseases, but some experts are warning that excessive consumption could result in other illnesses. Shan Juan and Cheng Yingqi report.

The results of a study of the dietary habits of 500,000 Chinese people conducted by scientists from Harvard and Peking universities suggests that those who ate spicy food three times a week had a 14 percent lower risk of premature death from certain illnesses than diners who preferred blander food. The survey was part of the China Kadoorie Biobank Study, a program that aims to identify the causes of major illnesses such as stroke, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory disease.

“Spicy food is extremely popular in China. That prompted us to conduct the study,” Lu Qi, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, wrote in an e-mail exchange with China Daily. According to Lu, there is growing evidence, albeit mostly from experimental research, to support the view that spices or their active components, such as capsaicin, can benefit human health, although there is a lack of demographic data to support the conclusions. Capsaicin is the compound responsible for the burning sensation that accompanies eating chili, the fruit of the capsicum plant. The seeds of the capsicum are mainly dispersed by birds, and some scientists believe the fiery taste is a natural defense and is intended to discourage consumption by mammals with molar teeth, which would grind, and therefore destroy, the seeds. It’s also believed that capsaicin can act as an anti-fungal agent, preventing potential deadly fungi, such as fusarium, from attacking the plants.