Eating chili peppers regularly as part of the Mediterranean diet has been linked to a lower risk of dying early and from cardiovascular disease in a study.
Scientists looked at data collected between 2005 and 2010 on 22,811 men and women living in the mountainous Molise region of southern Italy. The chili pepper is a staple of the Mediterranean diet, and used to flavor traditional food in southern Italy, according to the authors of the paper published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. The diet earns its name from the lifestyle traditionally followed by the populations of the Mediterranean basin. It is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. Olive oil provides the biggest chunk of fat, while fish, eggs, wine, and poultry are consumed in moderation.
The participants filled in questionnaires about what they ate at the start of the study, which the researchers used to place them into four categories: those who never or rarely ate chili peppers; those who ate them twice a week; between twice and four times; and four or more.
By the end of the study, 1,236 of the volunteers had died. Eating chili pepper regularly, at least four times per week was linked with a 23 percent lower risk of dying of any cause compared with those who never or rarely ate chilis. Participants who often consumed the spicy fruit also had a 34 percent lower chance of dying of cardiovascular disease.
Past studies suggest capsaicin, the active component of chili peppers which makes them spicy, could carry health benefits, the authors of the paper explained. More research is needed to explain what is behind the link and to characterize the potential role played by capsaicin, the team told Newsweek in a joint statement.
First author Marialaura Bonaccio, an epidemiologist at Maastricht University in the Netherlands; Dr. Giovanni de Gaetano, senior investigator and president of Italy’s I.R.C.C.S. Neuromed; and Dr. Licia Iacoviello, professor of public health at the University of Insubria, Italy, spoke to Newsweek.
“The strength of the association between chili pepper and cardiovascular mortality risk is quite strong, but also the risk reduction toward total death risk is actually surprising,” they said.
The study was limited, however, because it was observational. That means the researchers didn’t control what participants did, but simply examined data collected on them. In addition, as the dietary data was only collected once, it’s not clear if what the participants ate changed over time. But the researchers said they performed statistical analyses to make sure their findings were as robust as possible.
So should we increase our intake of chili peppers in response to the study? No, the authors said. “Diets should not be treated as drugs,” they argued. “We should not talk in terms of amounts per day, as if we were dealing with drugs, rather our effort should be addressed to promote a global healthy lifestyle, starting from the diet.
They continued: “We may encourage people who usually add chilis to their food to continue in doing so, since now there is good scientific evidence for this. Moderation is an important characteristic of [the] Mediterranean diet. If people dislike chili, well, they should just follow a healthy Mediterranean diet.”
“This study contributes to increasing the knowledge on how healthy lifestyles, such as diet, act in improving our health,” the researchers said: “This is of crucial importance especially at a time when pharmacological treatments are systematically preferred to healthy changes in lifestyles.”
Dr. Penny Kris-Etherton, distinguished professor of nutrition at Penn State and Fellow of the American Heart Association, who did not work on the research, told Newsweek: “It’s too simplistic to say that incorporating chili peppers alone can lower your risk of a heart attack, especially if they are just added to a poor quality diet.
Certainly, chili-peppers can be part of a healthy eating pattern that emphasizes vegetables, fruits, nuts/seeds, whole grains, lean protein and fish, limits foods high in saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, and minimizes trans fats, sodium (salt), processed meats, refined carbohydrates, and sweetened beverages. The overall eating pattern is most important for decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease—not just a single food.”
Duane Mellor, a registered dietitian and senior teaching fellow at Aston Medical School, Aston University, U.K., who did not work on the study, pointed out in a statement that the paper doesn’t prove that eating chili peppers improves health. It “hints that those who were following a more traditional Mediterranean diet seemed to benefit less than those not following this type of diet,” he said.
“This could suggest it is how chilis are used as part of an overall dietary pattern and lifestyle. It is plausible people who use chilis, as the data suggests, also used more herbs and spices, and as such likely to be eating more fresh foods including vegetables.”
Mellor went on: “So, although chilis can be a tasty addition to our recipes and meals, any direct effect is likely to be small and it is more likely that it makes eating other healthy foods more pleasurable.”
Ian Johnson, nutrition researcher and emeritus fellow at the Quadram Institute Bioscience, who also didn’t work on the paper, said in a statement the paper was of high quality and based on a large population.
Johnson also argued the link is likely down to some other dietary or lifestyle factor related to eating chilis.
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