The top two questions among all chili-eating contest spectators: “How can they keep eating that stuff?” and “Are their insides crying, too?” Their perseverance is indeed impressive, but it’s unclear whether all that spice can permanently damage the body. In fact, chilies and the sauces made from them have a complex chemistry that can potentially curb appetite and even lower blood pressure.
The Plus Side of Peppers — Why It Matters
Hot peppers can make our eyes and noses water, and one too many notches up the heat scale (aka the Scoville scale) can cause sweating and acute digestive misery. But is it possible eating something that hot can permanently damage our mouths? Some research suggests capsaicin can make it harder to taste sweet things immediately after eating the pepper extractEffects of oral chemical irritation on tastes and flavors in frequent and infrequent users of chili. Prescott J, Stevenson RJ. Sensory Research Centre, CSIRO Division of Food Science & Technology, North Ryde NSW, Australia. Physiology & Behavior. 1995 Dec;58(6):1117-27., but more research is needed to explore whether capsaicin has a lasting effect on our sense of taste after years of hitting the TabascoEffects of oral chemical irritation on tastes and flavors in frequent and infrequent users of chili. Prescott J, Stevenson RJ. Sensory Research Centre, CSIRO Division of Food Science & Technology, North Ryde NSW, Australia. Physiology & Behavior. 1995 Dec;58(6):1117-27..
The ingredient in most hot sauces that lends them that spicy kick is called capsaicinCapsaicin, a double-edged sword: toxicity, metabolism, and chemopreventive potential. Surh YJ, Lee SS. Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut 06520-8034, USA. Life Sciences. 1995;56(22):1845-55.. It’s found in peppers ranging from jalapenos to habanero, and generally, the hotter the pepper, the denser its capsaicin contentThe two faces of capsaicin. Bode AM, Dong Z. The Hormel Institute, University of Minnesota, Austin, Minnesota 55912, USA. Cancer Research. 2011 Apr 15; 71(8):2809-14. Electronic publication 2011 Apr 12. Review.. And besides flavoring those Buffalo wings, this super-hot compound has a range of potential health benefits, from easing sinus problems and lowering blood pressure to potentially aiding with weight lossA new way to lower blood pressure: pass the chili peppers please! Sessa WC. Vascular Biology and Therapeutics Program, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT 06520, USA. Cell Metabolism. 2010 Aug 4;12(2):109-10.. Claims that hot peppers and sauces can prevent digestive infections, however, are largely unproven.
Should I Put Out the Fire? — The Answer/Debate
In certain cultures, heavy consumption of spicy and pickled food (including chilies and their saucy derivatives) has been linked to an increased risk of various forms of cancerPopulation-based case-control study on risk factors for esophageal cancer in five high-risk areas in China. Sun X, Chen W, Chen Z, et al. The Fourth Hospital of Hebei Medical University, China. Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention. 2010;11(6):1631-6.Diet and stomach cancer: a case-control study in South India. Mathew A, Gangadharan P, Varghese C, et al. Division of Epidemiology and Clinical Research, Regional Cancer Centre, Medical College PO, Trivandrum, Kerala, India. European Journal of Cancer Prevention. 2000 Apr; 9(2):89-97.. And while it’s unlikely an occasional dash of spice will cause such diseases without other contributing factors, lovers of fiery foods should also be mindful of potentially high sodium levels in those favorite sauces.
The key to safer hot sauce consumption? Use moderation with sauces containing a lot of sodium, and stay aware of how it feels. Each individual’s body reacts differently to capsaicin, and if slathering those eggs in spicy stuff is physically painful, chances are some boundaries are being pushed.
Photo by Jordan Shakeshaft