Even growing up in a family which liked its food very spicy I was regarded as being extreme in my like of fiery dishes. The story is – and I have only some very vague reflections of this – that I sucked my thumb as a child for a very long time. After my parents gave up on their attempts to stop this depraved habit my grandmother took charge. She wrapped my thumb every morning in a gauze bandage steeped in powdered red chillies. This continued all through one winter she spent with us when I was about two. She was “accused” by mother of “child cruelty” but she was determined to bring the depraved child back into line. Apparently I did not cry or complain – unnatural child that I was. Only my right thumb was wrapped in the chillie-bandage but it did not get me to stop or even to shift to my left thumb. In any event this “torture” went on for about 3 months but did not cure me of sucking my thumb (and that continued, I am told, till I was almost four). Thumb-sucking came to its natural end in due course but by then red chillies had been established as my “natural comforter”. I no longer suck my thumb, even at times of great stress – but I do find a blisteringly fiery meal strangely comforting.
But perhaps my grandmother has helped prolong my life. A new study in the BMJ reports on an observational study which makes no claims about cause and effect but merely reports a correlation between the eating of spicy food and a decrease in mortality.
Jun Lv et al. Consumption of spicy foods and total and cause specific mortality: population based cohort study. BMJ, 2015 DOI:10.1136/bmj.h3942
Press Release: Previous research has suggested that beneficial effects of spices and their bioactive ingredient, capsaicin, include anti-obesity, antioxidant, anti-inflammation and anticancer properties. So an international team led by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences examined the association between consumption of spicy foods as part of a daily diet and the total risk and causes of death. They undertook a prospective study of 487,375 participants, aged 30-79 years, from the China Kadoorie Biobank. Participants were enrolled between 2004-2008 and followed up for morbidities and mortality. ……
During a median follow-up of 7.2 years, there were 20,224 deaths. Compared with participants who ate spicy foods less than once a week, those who consumed spicy foods 1 or 2 days a week were at a 10% reduced risk of death (hazard ratios for death was 0.90). And those who ate spicy foods 3 to 5 and 6 or 7 days a week were at a 14% reduced risk of death (hazard ratios for death 0.86, and 0.86 respectively).*In other words, participants who ate spicy foods almost every day had a relative 14% lower risk of death compared to those who consumed spicy foods less than once a week.
The association was similar in both men and women, and was stronger in those who did not consume alcohol. Frequent consumption of spicy foods was also linked to a lower risk of death from cancer, and ischaemic heart and respiratory system diseases, and this was more evident in women than men.
Fresh and dried chilli peppers were the most commonly used spices in those who reported eating spicy foods weekly, and further analysis showed those who consumed fresh chilli tended to have a lower risk of death from cancer, ischaemic heart disease, and diabetes.
There is no chocolate dessert which is not better for the addition of a sprinkle or two of red chillie powder. It is not just chillies of course. A little cumin in the cheese can do wonders. A touch of cinnamon in the Irish coffee is decadently good. A little asafoetida in the traditional Swedish pea-soup can bring it to life. Bangers and mash with hot mustard on the bangers and onions and red chillies in the mash is a student’s delight. Coriander added to the mint with any lamb dish is the way to go. A touch of saffron on any fish or crustacean dish can hardly go wrong. I even find that there is no over-rated, Michelin-starred, French dish which cannot be improved by the addition of a little of the right spice.