Last week the British Medical Journal published research from a Chinese study suggesting that eating spicy food almost daily can reduce mortality rates by 14 per cent. This is reduced to 10 per cent when having it just twice a week. The spices that were consumed were mostly chilli peppers with those people who ate fresh chillis rather than dried enjoying the most benefits.
Putting aside the strengths and weaknesses of the trial, it is of course useful to be reminded once again of the potential nutritional benefits of what we choose to flavour food with as well as the main ingredients. Chilli contains various nutrients including capsaicin, responsible for the fiery taste and the stronger the effect suggests higher concentration of capsaicin. By the way, a glug of milk is a smart way to reduce the burning sensation if you overdo it as the effects of capsaicin are dampened by casein.
Here is a quick guide to some other spices that also add heat to food...
Pepper: Peppercorns are derived from the same plant, and the various colours - green, white and black – differ only in the stage of their development. Like other spices with heat, pepper can stimulate the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach. As levels are often reduced in times of stress, food can remain partially undigested which in turn contributes to feeling bloated. Aside from the obvious day to day use try adding fresh green peppers to a stir fry or heat in a dry pan and add to cooked fish.
Cayenne pepper: Like chillis, cayenne pepper also offers capsaicin but may be less active when used in dried form. Cayenne can be used to combat inflammation, open the airways (useful when you have a stuffy nose) and can reduce pain too, but only if you have an awful lot. Useful sprinkled on poultry or white fish before cooking.
Turmeric: Turmeric is an important source of curcumin and its ability to reduce inflammation is well known but it may have the potential to combat the spread of some cancerous cells as it interferes with replication and growth. Curcumin in turmeric can help in inflammatory conditions including Irritable Bowel Syndrome as it can reduce inflammation of the lining of the gut which may also play a role in colon cancer. Curcumin can also help reduce levels of LDL cholesterol and also may have properties that can act against the formation of Alzheimer’s disease. Add a teaspoon to soups and even smoothies if you can bear it.
Cumin: Although cumin is a decent source of iron that can help red blood cells carry oxygen, not enough is eaten to really boost iron levels. Cumin seeds, however, can help the liver with normal detoxification as well as stimulate digestive enzymes, which can be reduced in times of stress. Try the seeds popped on a medium heat in a dry pan and then add to salads.
Ginger: Ginger is a potent source of gingerols, a plant chemical that is a sort of second cousin to capsaicin. Well known as an anti-spasmodic and anti-inflammatory, ginger has a variety of effects including helping reduce nausea as well as combating arthritis. Gingerols have been linked to reducing the incidence of colon cancer and can cause aptosis (cell death) in some types of cancer cells.
Wasabi: Wasabi is the pulp made from the root of the Japanese horseradish plant. Like mustard and broccoli, it contains isothiocyanates. Isothiocyanates have been shown to reduce the risk of some cancers and potentially limit tumour size as well. They may also help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke by preventing the abnormal clumping of blood platelets.