Turn up the heat: The health ben­e­fits of chill­ies

THEY’RE HOT, SPICY AND GOOD FOR YOU. SARAH MARINOS LOOKS AT HOW CHILL­IES CAN IM­PROVE YOUR HEALTH

Good Health Choices - - Content -

Re­searchers be­lieve cap­saicin may pre­vent obe­sity, and may also help to bal­ance gut bac­te­ria

It took just a sin­gle Carolina Reaper chilli to put a 34-year-old man in hos­pi­tal. He was tak­ing part in a chilli-eat­ing con­test when, as the event ended, he be­gan ex­pe­ri­enc­ing re­cur­rent ‘thun­der­clap’ headaches. Doc­tors ini­tially thought he had a neu­ro­log­i­cal con­di­tion, but a scan showed the pain was due to the chilli – one of the hottest in the world. It caused ves­sels sup­ply­ing blood to his brain to con­strict, and it took about five weeks for them to re­turn to nor­mal.

The Scov­ille scale rates the heat of a chilli and was de­vel­oped in 1912 by pharmacist Wil­bur Scov­ille, who mea­sured how many times dif­fer­ent chill­ies had to be di­luted in sugar water be­fore they stopped burn­ing. Be­fore the ar­rival of the Carolina Reaper (which mea­sures 1,569,300 Scov­ille Heat Units), Aus­tralia claimed to grow the world’s hottest spec­i­men. The Chilli Fac­tory in NSW pro­duces the Trinidad Scor­pion Butch T chilli (1,463,700 Scov­ille Heat Units); grow­ers even wear pro­tec­tive cloth­ing when han­dling it.

The magic in­gre­di­ent

The root of a chilli’s hot­ness is in the tiny yel­low or cream-coloured sacs inside it. They con­tain cap­saicin, and the more cap­saicin there is, the hot­ter the chilli. Cap­saicin doesn’t re­ally burn the mouth, but acts on a re­cep­tor found in the skin, called TRPV1, that sends a sig­nal to the brain and fools it into be­liev­ing our mouth is on fire.

If you’re a chilli lover, en­dur­ing the heat can be part of the fun. But if you take a bite and it’s too hot too han­dle, how do you soothe the burn? A glass of cold water won’t help be­cause cap­saicin doesn’t dis­solve eas­ily in water. In­stead, ex­perts sug­gest a glass of cold, full-fat milk or some plain full-fat yogurt, be­cause fat re­moves cap­saicin from the TRPV1 re­cep­tor and be­gins to shut down the sig­nals sent to the brain.

Flavour plus

Re­searchers from the Chile Pep­per In­sti­tute at New Mex­ico State Univer­sity be­lieve peo­ple first be­gan grow­ing chilli pep­pers in the Western world about 15,000 years ago, ini­tially for medic­i­nal pur­poses. Chill­ies con­tain an­tiox­i­dants, flavonoids, min­er­als and more, so they’re as nu­tri­tious as they are fiery.

A study at the Univer­sity of Ver­mont found hot red chill­ies may re­duce our risk of dy­ing by as much as 13 per cent, mostly by cut­ting the risk of heart dis­ease and stroke. Re­searchers be­lieve cap­saicin may pre­vent obe­sity, keep blood flow­ing freely to the heart, re­duce the risk of high choles­terol and high blood pres­sure, and may also help to bal­ance gut bac­te­ria.

“Chilli pep­per or spicy food con­sump­tion may be­come a di­etary rec­om­men­da­tion,” says re­searcher Mustafa Chopan.

Mean­while, re­searchers at the Univer­sity of Con­necti­cut are in­ves­ti­gat­ing the po­ten­tial for hot chill­ies to ease dis­eases such as col­i­tis and type 1 di­a­betes. Lab­o­ra­tory ex­per­i­ments that fed cap­saicin to mice found those eat­ing the spice had less gut in­flam­ma­tion, and mice with type 1 di­a­betes were cured of the dis­ease. This may be be­cause when cap­saicin binds to the TRPV1 re­cep­tor, it causes cells in the body to make a com­pound called anan­damide, which has a calm­ing ef­fect on the gut and im­mune sys­tem.

And there’s more…

The weight-loss in­dus­try could soon be in on the act as well. Univer­sity of Wy­oming re­searchers be­lieve cap­saicin stim­u­lates a process called ther­mo­ge­n­e­sis, which helps burn body fat. “Ther­a­peu­tic agents, such as di­etary cap­saicin, [of­fer] new business po­ten­tial for de­vel­op­ing phar­ma­cother­a­pies and treat­ments to man­age obe­sity,” says Davona Douglass, di­rec­tor of the Re­search Prod­ucts Cen­ter at the Univer­sity of Wy­oming. “Di­etary cap­saicin may be used by in­di­vid­u­als look­ing for a non-in­va­sive ther­a­peu­tic treat­ment for ab­nor­mal body-weight gain.”

So for the sake of your heart, gut, waist­line and more, next time you de­cide to make a spicy dish, don’t spare the chill­ies!

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