If you’re not one who enjoys a little spice in your food, you could be missing out on more than a kick in your meal.
Turns out hot sauce is extremely healthy for you, according to top pepper experts.
Peppers’ active ingredient is capsaicin, which has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anticancer effects, as seen in lab studies. A study on half a million Chinese adults found that those who ate spicy foods three or more times a week had a 14% reduced risk of death, compared to those who stay away from spice.
David Popovich, who studies the bioactive compounds in plants and is a senior lecturer at Massey University in New Zealand, has seen capsaicin deter cell growth in cancer cells in his own research. He’s not sure why this happens yet, but figures it’s some sort of ‘cell suicide’ that encourages the turnover of cells to be recycled into new ones.
“That’s one of the ways scientists think capsaicin and other active compounds in vegetables can prevent cancer development: by stimulating apoptotic cell death,” Popovich says.
And the hotter the pepper, the more capsaicin it contains. While it’s seen as the catalyst of health in peppers, scientists are learning it’s the interaction between capsaicin and other elements of a pepper that make it so healthy.
“Pungent peppers are a cocktail of bioactive compounds,” says José de Jesús Ornelas-Paz, who is also a researcher of vegetable bioactive compounds and professor at the Research Center for Food and Development in Mexico. “Blending, cutting and cooking improve the release of [these compounds] from pepper tissue, increasing the amount available for absorption.”
Be careful on which hot sauce you’re buying. Sweetened chili sauce, like the popular sriracha sauce, contains a lot of sugar, while others may have too much sodium. Popovich’s ideal hot sauce has red habanero peppers, vinegar, a little bit of salt and some garlic.
“The bottom line is that any kind of vegetable material you consume will improve your health,” he says. “But hot peppers are really beneficial for you, if you can take the spice.”