Ever wonder why so many foods originating from the hotter climates in the world are always so spicy hot?
From Mexico to India, Southeast Asia and China to southern Italy, popular cuisine is full of spices, herbs and flavorings that make the eyes water and the cheeks turn rosy. Reality TV shows make a big deal out of which restaurants serve the hottest foods and which contestants are able to withstand the fiery insults from the foods they serve.
Some hot spices or food components not only improve flavor, but serve medicinal purposes. Americans Indians have used cayenne (Capsicum annuum or frutescens, or red pepper) as food and medicine for at least 9,000 years. Cayenne has also been used in traditional Indian ayurvedic and Chinese, Japanese and Korean medicines as an oral remedy for digestive problems, poor appetite and circulatory problems. It has also been applied to the skin for arthritis and muscle pain.
Spicy foods containing peppers might even have an impact on cancer. In 2006, researchers at the Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles found that capsaicin, a substance found in hot peppers like habanero, jalapeno and chili, killed off prostate cancer cells.
Research suggests that eating hot peppers contained in spicy foods might be helpful for treating obesity. Hot peppers have been shown to suppress appetite and decrease total caloric intake. A 2006 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that consuming chili pepper improves blood sugar and insulin regulation after a meal.
Until the introduction of refrigeration, populations living in warm and tropical climates were at greater risk of illness from potentially hazardous foods like meats, beans and other high protein foods. A unique property of hot spicy foods is the potent antibacterial role they play to protect against food-borne illness. People who enjoyed food with antibacterial spices probably were healthier, especially in hot climates. They lived longer and left more offspring, who in turn enjoyed the same kinds of foods and flavors as them.
A review of 4,578 recipes containing meat, poultry or fish published in 93 traditional cookbooks, found that the hotter the climate of the region, the more spices were called for in the recipes. Especially prominent were onion and garlic, which have been shown to inhibit the growth of all 30 microorganisms considered in the study. Cayenne, which is widely used in hot climates, inhibits the growth of 80 percent of microorganisms considered.
Among 120 recipes from Indonesia, 80 percent contained garlic and onion and 77 percent contained capsicums. In Ireland, on the other hand, onions appeared in 56 percent, garlic in 23 percent, and capsicums in only 2 percent of 90 recipes analyzed, even though the plants can grow there. In India, more than 80 percent of Indian recipes were prepared with onions, ginger, and capsicums and 76 percent called for garlic. But in Norway, the only prominent seasonings were black and white pepper, used in less than half the recipes.
Just a word of caution: The University of Maryland Medical Center warns that hot peppers might increase stomach acidity, increase the risk of bleeding from blood-thinning medications and decrease the effectiveness of aspirin. Consult your doctor about consuming spicy food if you have a stomach or intestinal problem, or are taking blood-thinning medications or aspirin.
Chuck Newcomb, MS, RD, CDE is a consulting registered dietitian providing medical nutrition therapy services for Memorial Hospital Los Banos. He has a master of science in clinical nutrition from New York University. E-mail questions to the Attention of ChuckRD at:
SutterHealth.org or on his website MySmartRD.com.
Chuck Newcomb, MS, RD, CDE is a consulting registered dietitian providing medical nutrition therapy services for Memorial Hospital Los Banos. He has a master of science in clinical nutrition from New York University. E-mail questions to the Attention of C