Opinions about spicy food vary: Some consider it unhealthy, others attribute their well-being to the habit of eating spicy food on a regular basis. While some people eat spicy foods to boost digestion, some people get heartburn or diarrhea from eating spicy meals. Hot spices do indeed have advantages – but you should not overdo it either.
Is spicy food healthy or unhealthy?
Imagine eating a particularly fiery portion of Chili con Carne. After just a few bites you will get hot, and the beads of sweat will be on your forehead. That’s because spicy food activates the heat receptors. This stimulates the blood circulation in the tissue, the pores open; we sweat – this is thought to be the reason for the often spicy cuisine in many hot countries because spicy food lowers the body temperature.
Capsaicin is the active ingredient that, along with other capsaicinoids, is responsible for the hot taste of chili and paprika. It is tasteless, but it irritates the nerve endings that generally perceive heat impulses. We recognize this as a burning sharpness.
In fact, when we eat spicily, our brain receives a pain signal. As a result, endorphins are released. The situation is similar with piperine in pepper, which is also known as the “pepper-high effect.” Chili and other hot spices are therefore sometimes even called a kind of natural drug because the hormones of happiness can have a relaxing effect on the body.
Capsaicin works in many ways. The pain stimulus releases endorphins. That’s why chili and other hot spices are said to make you happy. At the same time, capsaicin leads to hot flushes and sweating. It is assumed that people in warm regions make conscious use of this effect. Sweating lowers the body temperature and cools the body. In Mexico and Thailand, between 25-200 mg of capsaicinoids are absorbed daily through the consumption of chilies. In Central Europe, however, the average daily intake is only 1.5 mg. The antibacterial effect of capsaicin has another positive impact on the storage of food in warm countries. The development of microorganisms is inhibited.
Capsaicin also stimulates gastric motor function and increases gastric juice secretion. That’s how it stimulates digestion. Fat-rich foods can be better digested due to the increased gastric juice production. Saliva flow is also boosted by spicy food, which can have a positive effect on dental health. The vasodilating effect of capsaicin leads to improved blood circulation, including the mucous membranes, which also sensitizes the sense of taste.
Furthermore, many ingredients of pungent spices or food have an antibacterial effect. Hot vegetables such as onions, garlic, and leek have an antibiotic and disinfecting effect. It is also useful for oral hygiene to eat spicy food – provided you are healthy – because it stimulates the flow of saliva.
Here’s some proof
In a small study, the scientists tested the antioxidant effect of a meal rich in antioxidant spices and its effects on metabolism. Six healthy, overweight men were given a 1,200 calorie meal at two different times. The control meal consisted of a dish with coconut chicken and white rice, cheese bread and a biscuit for dessert. For the test meal, the scientists added high doses of spices to the same ingredients, creating a chicken curry, Italian green cheese bread, and a cinnamon biscuit.
After each meal, the scientists analyzed blood samples from the participants. They found that the added spices resulted in 21% lower insulin levels, 31% lower triglyceride levels and 13% higher antioxidant levels – with the results obtained after the control meal serving as a benchmark. Admittedly, the dose was high, but among the spices used were many common spices that could be found more or less on any standard spice rack: black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, garlic powder, ginger, oregano, paprika powder, rosemary, and turmeric.
Hot food stimulates the blood circulation in the mucous membranes, which has an effect on the taste buds. Hot spices therefore also act as flavor enhancers. Spicy food also promotes the production of gastric juice.
Also, digestion, especially of fatty foods, is being boosted – Italian scientists conducted an investigation in Bologna in which people were suffering from dyspepsia (often referred to as “digestive disorders” in popular parlance) were able to significantly relieve their symptoms, such as constipation, by taking the paprika powder for several weeks.
A research team conducted another test at the University of Tasmania in Australia: A comparison of two test groups showed that spicy food – in this case, chili – regulates insulin levels. The higher the insulin level rises, the higher the probability of weight gain.
Spicy food can also have an enhancing effect on the conversion of calories into heat – i.e., increase calorie consumption. Those who are not used to hot spices eat more slowly at the same time and reach their saturation limit with smaller quantities.
When the spice food unhealthy?
However, spicy food can become unhealthy if there are stomach problems: As the production of gastric juices is stimulated, complaints such as heartburn can be intensified. Chronic heartburn, in turn, can promote the development of esophageal cancer. In addition to years of intensive smoking and alcohol consumption, the consumption of very spicy foods over long periods of time is sometimes added to the list of causes of esophageal cancer.
Stomach pain and gastritis can also result if a sensitive stomach has to digest spicy food. Some people even react with diarrhea. Furthermore, a possible connection between bladder irritation and bladder incontinence and excessive consumption of hot spices is discussed.
Moderate for a sensitive stomach
Especially people with a sensitive stomach should enjoy spicy food with caution. Stomach pain or diarrhea can be the result. Heartburn can be intensified by the stimulating effect of gastric juice production. There may be a connection between eating very spicy food and cancer of the upper digestive organs. The consumption of very spicy diet is associated with esophageal cancer over an extended period.
Be careful with extra hot chili sauces and extracts.
Hot to very spicy dishes of traditional African or Asian cuisine is unusual for Central Europeans, but occasional consumption does not harm health. However, excessive consumption of chili preparations and chilies can lead to health problems (nausea, mucous membrane irritation, vomiting, high blood pressure) and can be life-threatening. Children, in particular, are susceptible to chili products. The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, therefore, advises consumers against eating unusually large quantities of extremely hot chili sauces and chili fruit.
Unhealthy during pregnancy?
Many expectant or breastfeeding mothers fear that spicy food will harm their children. Doctors are reassuring: Even during breastfeeding and pregnancy, you can eat hot food as long as your mother and child feel comfortable and you don’t eat lots of very spicy foods.
Mothers from countries with spicy cuisine usually do not change their eating habits even during pregnancy, and their children do not suffer any harm. It is essential that you cannot eat very spicy food overnight, but that you gradually increase the sharpness level – whether pregnant or not, child or adult.
Safe handling tips of the “sharpeners.”
- Use spices ingredients in moderation. Bottom line, the food should be edible.
- When using chilies and chili products, always feel the sharpness slowly.
- Capsaicinoids irritate the eyes! Therefore you should wash your hands or wear gloves after handling chilies.
- Capsaicin is fat-soluble. Milk or milk products or starchy foods (rice, bread) in combination with cooking oil or fats can help with burning pain.