Spicy Food: Today’s Hot Health Trend

Everyone remembers their first time…

Was your first time consuming a whole hot pepper a “pepper challenge?” That dare from a friend over Mexican or Thai food and a drink or two? If so, chances are the first sensation you felt when you ate “the whole thing” was that familiar burning in your mouth. Capsaicin is the compound that causes this reaction. It makes your eyes water and your tongue feel aflame.

The more capsaicin a pepper has, the “hotter” it tastes. As you reached for that glass of water, with your victory smile (or grimace) on your face, perhaps you wondered, “are hot peppers good for you?” The answer to that is yes, they are. Spices, including capsaicin, have been part of our diet since the first humans played “the pepper challenge” over an early fire.


The spice trade began in the Middle East 4000 years ago. In its day, the spice trade was the world’s biggest industry. Empires rose and fell because of it. The Silk Road was a famous spice trading route connecting Asia with the Mediterranean, including North Africa and Europe. Trade on the Silk Road was significant in the development of the civilizations of China, India, Egypt, Persia, Arabia, and Rome.

Chilies—capsicum plants—originated in South America, and were domesticated there over 6000 years ago. While capsicum plants originated in South America, many favorite spices originated in South Asia (India, Thailand, Vietnam) including turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon. And star anise and wasabi originated in East Asia (Japan, China, Korea).


“Spices” are comprised of varying types and parts of plants—and differing compounds give them their heat. Ginger, turmeric, and wasabi you find in stores are from the root/rhizome portions of the plant. Cinnamon is made from bark. Saffron is derived from the “stigma” of a flower. Black pepper is derived from the plant’s fruit. And capsicum spices, or chilies, get their heat from the pith, ribs, and seeds of the fruits of flowering plants in the nightshade family.

Chilies, of which there are over 2000 varieties currently being cultivated worldwide, get their heat from capsaicin. Ginger gets its heat from a similar compound called gingerol. Wasabi gets its heat from allyl isothiocyanate. And black pepper gets its heat from the compound piperine.

The “heat” quotient in spices is measured in Scoville Heat Units. Scoville heat units (often shortened to just SHU) are simply a measurement of sugar-water. The Scoville Organoleptic Test measures chili heat by figuring out how much sugar-water is needed to be diluted into a chili pepper mash to get to the point where you no longer feel the heat at all.


  1. Weight Maintenance: There are a few ways spicy food can benefit weight management. Foods rich in healthy spices, such as wasabi or capsaicin, may contain fewer calories and less fat while offering fiber and plenty of flavor. So spicy foods help us feel full and satisfied, reducing the temptation to overeat. In addition, spices can kick our metabolism “up a notch.” The primary compound in chilies, capsaicin, has been shown to have a thermogenic effect. This enables our bodies to burn a greater amount of calories after eating.
  2. Heart Health: History has shown cultures that eat the most spicy food have a much lower incidence of heart attack and stroke. Wasabi contains isothiocyanates compounds that help prevent blood platelets from sticking together, reducing the risk of a stroke or heart attack. Capsaicin and the compounds in spices such as wasabi also help reduce our level of LDL or (bad) cholesterol, reducing the risks of heart disease and systemic inflammation in the body.
  3. Reduced Cancer Risk: Studies published by the American Association for Cancer Research show that capsaicin has the ability to kill some cancer and leukemic cells. Turmeric and wasabi also contain compounds that are protective against tumor growth.
  4. Better Blood Pressure: Hot peppers can cool blood pressure, helping to protect arterial health. Vitamins in the peppers strengthen heart muscle walls, while all those Scoville units increase blood flow throughout the body for an overall a stronger circulatory system.
  5. Better Mood: Spicy foods are known to increase the production of serotonin and other hormones that help us feel our best and beat stress.
  6. Brain Health: Red peppers contain a compound known as apigenin, which has been shown to strengthen connections between brain cells. Apigenin is a flavonoid that may help preserve key brain functions such as memory and learning. So enjoying spicy food may help protect against disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s Disease, and other mental disorders.
  7. Fight Muscle Cramps: According to new research, spicy foods like chilies and wasabi can prevent muscle cramps. The research indicates that cramps are triggered primarily by nerves misfiring, not through dehydration as previously believed, and that the intense flavors of spicy food overloads the nervous system and prevents the misfires that cause cramping.



The ways to enjoy these healthy menu helpers are limited only by your imagination! Create a curry. Stir fry fresh veggies with plenty of ginger, garlic, and Chinese spices. Enjoy sushi with fresh wasabi, Mexican dishes layered chilies, or grate fresh turmeric into your salads or wraps. And a bit of red pepper goes well with pretty much everything. Bon appétit

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