Most of us don’t think twice about spicy foods and whether eating them is a benefit to our health or just an annoyance that hinders us from fully tasting what’s on the plate.
For many folks, adding a little “kick” to food is a cultural thing, which makes some of us a little more comfortable with spice than others. So from an early age, kids grow use to—and actually begin to prefer—the heat in their mouths, as it adds to the experience of a dish.
If you’re a spice-lover, you’ll be happy to know that there’s a little more too it than just preference of taste. Spicy foods have some incredible benefits that will make you think about adding a little more heat to your dishes.
Watch our Tuesday Tip on spicy foods
What is “spicy?”
If we’re talking about chili peppers, there’s a chemical component in these peppers called capsaicin that gives it the spicy sensation (an irritant to most mammals). This shouldn’t be confused with piperine, which is the chemical in black pepper that give it its spice. There’s also Allyl isothiocyanate, which gives foods like wasabi, horseradish, and mustard that biting sensation.
Both capsaicin and piperine are incredibly beneficial in fighting disease and have been used in traditional natural medicine for centuries. It helps with digestion, stimulating the digestive enzymes in the pancreas, and also helping to digest protein.
Both help to reduce inflammation and help with nutrient absorption. For instance, when using a powerful spice like turmeric, adding black pepper—because of the piperine—helps the efficacy of the turmeric (curcumin) and how your body absorbs and utilizes it.
This, accompanied by the plethora of antioxidants, reduces the severity and helps combat major diseases such as: cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, psoriasis, and diabetes. “Consistently consuming foods high in this nutrient [capsaicin] has been proven to improve the blood sugar and insulin reactions in both men and women, and also in women with gestational diabetes.”
The ability to fight inflammation also aids in combating pain, including headaches and arthritis.
It’s an appetite suppressant, so it may help with weight management. It also helps speed up your metabolism, and may actually help burn fat.
Because of the antimicrobials in Black pepper, it has been used for centuries as a way to keep food fresh.
How to spice up your food
The best way to use pepper is grinding fresh, whole peppercorn yourself with a grinder, versus buying it already ground.
If you need more of punch than what black pepper can offer with piperine, then look to the many chilis available.
The heat in peppers are measured using the Scoville scale, named after the creator, American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville, that gives you the number in SHUs (Scoville heat units), the concentration of capsaicin in the pepper.
Starting with the pimento and bell pepper at 0 (which means no heat), and going all the way up to the Dragon’s Breath at over 2.5 million SHU, the range of spice varies greatly.
For reference, cayenne—a pretty common household food spice—has roughly 30-50 thousand SHU, and the also very common Habanero has 100-350 thousand SHU. So please, only use your imagination to gauge how hot that Dragon’s Breath is!
Above the Dragon’s Breath pepper is law enforcement-grade pepper spray, which has over 5 million SHUs, and at about 15 million SHU is pure capsaicin.
But of course, you want to start off low on the scale. Add a little sprinkle of powdered cayenne or a few dashes of hot sauce to you food first, and then work your way up.
Myths and facts
Water makes it taste spicier. This is a FACT. Ever heard the saying that oil and wate doesn’t mix? It’s true. The oil from the spice with water only makes the spice spread, rather than cool down. “Casein, the protein in milk, according to the American Chemical Society, helps break the bonds capsaicin forms on nerve receptors.” So drink a glass of milk, or even a teaspoon of sugar on the tongue (if you’re vegan) after something too spicy, but skip the water.
Spicy foods cause ulcers. This is a MYTH. Although spice may irritate an existing ulcer, it doesn’t cause ulcers to form or grow, “infection of the stomach with the organism Helicobacter Pylori has been found to be the main cause of gastric ulcers.”
In order to avoid contracting H-pylori, reduce, avoid or eliminate all foods and substances that are likely to trigger uncomfortable reactions, such as cheese, rich foods, caffeine and alcohol, at least until the problem has been treated and your stomach lining has healed.” And eat more garlic and honey.
The more you consume spicy food, the more you’ll like it. This is a FACT.
You can train your tongue to welcome spicy foods, and even build up your tolerance for the severity of spice. Like anything, it takes practice. If you feel like the benefits outweigh the fiery pain, just start low on the Scoville scale and work your way up.
There’s a certain personality to those who like spicy foods. This is actually a FACT.
According to John Hayes, director of the Sensory Evaluation Center at Penn State University and his colleague, Nadia Byrnes, “those who [are] most inclined to enjoy exploration, adventurous travel and action movies were six times more likely to relish the burn of a meal doused in Sriracha.” –Mother Nature Network.
Spicy food has many benefits, but it’s all a matter preference when it comes to whether you want a little pain with your pleasure when you’re eating.