Effect of Spicy Food Consumption on Total Mortality

Research Highlights

A recent study in China observed the possible link between consuming spicy foods and mortality. Capsaicin, the active ingredient in chilies that causes spice, has already been observed to have beneficial health effects.  Past studies have shown a lower cancer rate in populations that consume spice, as well as a reduction in obesity risk. Spices have also been known to have an antibacterial effect on gut microbiota, which are related to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.

            This study decided to investigate any connections between eating spicy food on a regular basis and mortality.   The study was conducted between 2004 and 2008, during which a little over 199,000 men and 288,000 women participated. The roughly 512,000 participants were between 30-79 years of age.  Patients exhibiting cancer, heart disease, and stroke at baseline were excluded. Those that were included provided informed consent, as well as answered a questionnaire about their spicy food consumption. The questionnaire asked “During the past month, about how often did you eat hot spicy foods?”. The answer ranges were never, occasionally, 1-2 days per week, 3-5 days per week, or 6-7 days per week. Participants that ate spicy foods often were asked what spice sources they used, with the possible answers being both fresh and dried chili pepper, chili sauce and chili oil, as well as “other” and “don’t know”.  Covarities were also obtained at the baseline, which included sociodemographic, lifestyle behaviors, medical history, and personal health factors.  As the study continued, deaths were recorded from death registries, with causes of death being named from official death certificates. Seven categories of death, including cancer, diabetes, respiratory system diseases, heart diseases, infections, and all other causes, were utilized.  There were participants marked as “losses to follow-up”, which mean their addresses had changed, their residence had moved out of the study area, or they could not be contacted within one year. Participants were observed from the baseline dates of 2004-2008 through December 31,2013, or until death/loss to follow-up. The analysis was done using multivariate models that included mortality risk factors, such as age, sex, education, martial status, alcohol or tobacco consumption, physical activity, BMI, diet, hypertension/diabetes, and family medical history of cancer, stroke, heart attack, or diabetes.

            The results found a correlation between participants that consumed spicy food on a nearly daily basis and rural residency. There was also as a higher chance of positive smoking status, alcohol consumption, and red meat consumption among these participants.  As for mortality, the study yielded an inverse relationship between total mortality and spicy food consumption that was statistically significant.  The comparison between those that ate spicy foods 6-7 days per week and those who only ate it less than once a week showed that there was a 14% total mortality risk reduction for those who ate spicy foods more often.  Though the study is benefitted from its large sample size and control for risk factors, there authors do warn of limitations. Spicy food consumption does tend to correlate with lifestyle behaviors and dietary habits than can affect mortality.  Therefore, there is much more to be considered in the effect of spicy food consumption on mortality.

BMJ 2015;351:h3942

Lena Chatterjee is the 2015-2016 Research Highlights Editor.