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Researchers in China suggest that regularly eating spicy foods could lead to a longer life.

If you’re one of the 54 percent of
Americans who like their food hot and spicy, then here’s some good news:
Researchers in China suggest that regularly eating spicy foods could
lead to a longer life.

A four-year study conducted
by the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences revealed that eating spicy
foods on a daily, or almost daily, basis might lower the overall risk of
premature death by up to 14 percent. The study also appears to connect
the hot diet ingredients with the delay of premature deaths caused by
cancer, ischemic heart disease and respiratory system ailments. Although
only observational and with no formal conclusions released, the study
does suggest that additional research may be valuable to identify how
much of which specific spices might contribute to the death-delaying

The study was
conducted between 2005 and 2008 on more than 510,000 Chinese citizens
and included another seven-year follow-up period. Participants were
associated with the  China Kadoorie Biobank,
a Chinese research institute that investigates the genetic and
environmental causes of chronic diseases in the Chinese population.
After the initial screening (achieved through questionnaires, physical
measurements and blood analysis), the study subjects were monitored
through established registries and health insurance providers, all of
which maintained databases for the purpose of the research. Future data
will also be reviewed and analyzed to assess changes in risk factors in
the study population. The study’s purpose is to advance comprehensive
understanding of the causes of chronic diseases in China and other

More than 20,000 study subjects died during the study’s
follow-up period, and their diets and causes of death were
investigated. Taking into account age and other significant factors,
analysis revealed that people who had eaten hot spices six to seven
times a week had lived approximately 14 percent longer than those who
ate the spices less than once per week. The finding was similar even
when the deaths were attributed to cancer, heart or lung diseases.

What wasn’t investigated was whether it
was the spice that made the difference or other factors consistent in
the lives of the longer-lived population. The majority of the
longer-lived participants lived in more rural communities with less
exposure to smog or other toxic environmental conditions associated with
high population density.

Dr. Nita Forouhi, a researcher of
Epidemiology at the University of Cambridge (which collaborated on the
study), called the findings “hypothesis-generating,” as opposed to
conclusive, in an editorial in the BMJ.
Peppers and other spicy foods contain capsaicin, a chemical that causes
a burning sensation on human mucous membranes. Capsaicin and other
“heated” chemicals are known to have anti-microbial, anti-oxidant,
anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. They also are believed to
contribute to higher rates of fat-burning in overweight people.

medical community members are skeptical of the findings, not because of
what they appear to present, but because of how the study was
conducted. Daphne Miller, an associate clinical professor at the
University of California San Francisco, identified her personal
challenges with the study. She told CNN that
there was no identification of exactly which peppers or spicy foods
were consumed; the form those peppers/foods may have been in at the time
of consumption (dried, fresh or oiled); how they may have been cooked;
or what other ingredients may have been included in the dish at the same

Still other researchers suggest that the longer-lived
people may simply have the propensity to eat more spicy foods, and that
the content of their diet is not as important in explaining their
longevity as other aspects of their lifestyle. “Is it a biological or
behavioral mechanism that caused the skew in the study numbers?” asked
bio-psychologist John E. Hayes in a CNN interview. Hayes is an associate
professor of food science and the director of the Sensory Evaluation
Center at Penn State University.

diet ingredients like garlic and curry are believed to protect against
cancer and may be beneficial to lower cholesterol and blood pressure,
said registered dietician Lona Sandon on Philly.com. If nothing else, she continued, “These spices add flavor and fun to food, but not calories or other risk of harm.”

study identifies several theories still in need of evidence. Its lead
author, Lu Qi is an associate professor of nutrition and epidemiology at
the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. He noted that
animal studies have demonstrated that fresh spices help to improve
cholesterol levels, control inflammation and reduce oxidative stress.
While human studies are “sparse,” the animal tests suggest that dietary
modification to include fresh, hot spices might positively impact human
populations, too.

It has long been said that variety is the spice of life, but it may turn out that pepper is the spice of a longer life.

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