Spicing up the prevention of cardiovascular disease with chili peppers
- The frequency of weekly consumption of chili peppers by 22,811 Italians from the Molise region was measured over an 8-year period.
- At the same time, researchers identified deaths from cardiovascular disease, cancer or other causes that occurred during this period.
- Results show that people who eat chilies 4 or more times per week have a 44% and 61% reduced risk of death from myocardial infarction or stroke, respectively, compared to those who never or very rarely eat them.
Chili peppers (Capsicum spp.) are native to South America, where they were already being cultivated for culinary purposes more than 6,000 years ago. Following the discovery of America by Europeans in the 15th century, these hot peppers were disseminated worldwide by Portuguese sailors (particularly in India and Asia), where they were quickly adopted and became essential ingredients in the culinary cultures of these countries.
The gastronomic value of chilies obviously comes from their spicy flavour, which distinctively enhances the taste of different dishes. This property is due to the presence of capsaicin (Figure 1), a phenolic compound that specifically interacts with certain receptors (TRPV1 for Transient Receptor Potential Vanilloid) involved in the pain signal generated by temperatures above 43ºC.
Figure 1. Molecular structure of capsaicin, the molecule responsible for the spicy taste of chili peppers.
By binding to the TRPV1 receptor present in the mouth, capsaicin therefore causes a feeling of heat or a burning sensation, which completely tricks the brain into believing that the mouth is literally “on fire”. The reason many people are attracted to these “painful” substances is still not understood, but could be related to the release of pleasure molecules (endorphins) to mitigate the effects of the “burn” detected by the brain.
In addition to their unique taste properties, a recent study suggests that chili peppers may have positive health effects, particularly for cardiovascular disease. Over an 8-year period, researchers followed just over 20,000 people recruited into the Moli-sani Project, a prospective study of residents of the Molise region of southeastern Italy. By analyzing deaths during this period according to the frequency of chili pepper consumption by participants, the researchers found that the risk of dying prematurely from all causes was reduced by 23% for hot pepper lovers (consumption 4 times per week). This decrease was particularly apparent for mortality linked to coronary heart disease (44%) and cerebrovascular disease (61%) (Figure 2). A downward trend was observed for cancer mortality, but the difference is not statistically significant.
Figure 2. Reduced risk of all-cause mortality and mortality related to various diseases among regular chili pepper consumers. Adapted from Bonaccio et al. (2019). N.S., not significant.
These observations are in agreement with previous studies that have observed a significant reduction (approximately 10–20%) of premature mortality among the largest consumers of spicy foods (here and here, for example).
As the editorial accompanying the article points out, although this type of population study does not directly establish a causal link between chili pepper consumption and mortality, it remains that the experimental data accumulated in recent years make this link biologically plausible. On the one hand, several studies have suggested that capsaicin may help prevent the development of obesity, an important risk factor for diabetes and cardiovascular disease. For example, epidemiological studies have observed that regular consumption of these peppers is associated with a reduction in the prevalence of obesity in certain populations, and clinical studies have observed a loss of abdominal fat following the administration of a supplement of capsinoids (capsaicin and related molecules) compared to placebo. This positive effect of capsaicin on body weight maintenance is mainly linked to a decrease in calorie intake, caused by decreased appetite and increased satiety.
On the other hand, it should be noted that capsaicin also influences other phenomena linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, notably by improving the response to insulin, reducing the oxidation of low-density lipoproteins (LDL), and improving endothelial function. Studies have also suggested that people who season their food with hot peppers eat less salt and are less at risk for hypertension, the main risk factor for cardiovascular events.
Overall, these observations raise the interesting possibility that some minor dietary changes, such as the addition of chili peppers, may have positive impacts on health, particularly at the cardiovascular level. Of course, there should be no illusions: if a person’s diet is based on ultra-processed foods and contains very little fruit and vegetables, it is not by adding sriracha sauce or Tabasco that they will manage to decrease their risk of cardiovascular disease. But in the context of a diet known to be positive for the health of the heart and vessels, such as the Mediterranean diet (adopted by most of the participants of the study mentioned above), it is possible that the positive biological effects of chili peppers on body weight, blood sugar and reduced salt intake may accentuate the benefits associated with this diet and therefore have a positive impact on health.