Spice is Nice

For better health, spices turn up the furnace on your food.

Without spice, some would say a bowl of chili is just beans with squashed tomatoes, and soup is little more than watered-down vegetables. Just a few dashes of hot sauce can transform scrambled eggs from meh to oh yeah. While spices range from earthy cumin to warming cinnamon, it’s often said that foods are “spicy” when they bring some heat. This can come courtesy of fresh and dried chili peppers, mustard seeds, certain curry powders, horseradish, and peppercorns—especially the feisty Sichuan variety. And it turns out that spicy ingredients are good for much more than turning up the heat.

Health Benefits of Heat. People who eat spicy foods on a daily basis appear to enjoy a 14 percent drop in disease mortality risk compared with those who shy away from the hot stuff, per research in the journal BMJ. “Hot items like chili peppers have a number of phytochemicals and volatile oils that exhibit anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Spicy flavor also makes nutritious foods taste better, making it easier to eat a more nutrient-rich diet,” says Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RD. Preliminary research suggests glucosinates in horseradish may help expel cancer-causing compounds from the body.

A 2017 study in the journal Hypertension showed that people with a preference for spicy foods tend to eat less salt and, in turn, have lower blood pressure numbers, which could lessen the risk for stroke and heart disease. “Areas of the brain that register salty and spicy overlap, making the taste threshold for salt lower,” Bazilian says. Similarly, a study from the University of California, San Diego found that people who were taught how to incorporate spices (and herbs!) into their cooking consumed on average 966 milligrams less sodium per day than those who were simply urged to eat a low-sodium diet.

Spice Up Your Diet. Setting your mouth ablaze may also be good for your waistline. Piperine, the compound that gives black pepper its kick, may prevent the formation of new fat cells, according to a study in the Journal of Agrigucultural and Food Chemistry. Studies suggest that consuming capsaicin, the principal compound that lends chili peppers their fiery punch, can help fire up metabolic rate, while also reducing appetite. So it’s speculated that a spicy diet can help with weight-loss efforts by modestly increasing calorie-burning while simultaneously trimming calorie consumption. Still, it remains to be determined how much spicy food a person needs to eat to see a body composition benefit.

If you like your meals to pack some oomph, these are all good excuses to spice up your meals. Just keep in mind that heat levels of chilies range from tame to blazing. Sweet paprika or Anaheim peppers won’t pack much punch, but a ghost pepper and certain chili powders can open up the sweat floodgates. If you’re used to eating little spice it’s best to slowly increase the heat. Too much too soon can cause reactions, like excessive flushing, dizziness, stomach pain and, um, some discomfort on the toilet. Those with a sensitive gut or digestive health issue, like irritable bowel syndrome, should also proceed with caution, Bazilian says.

—Matthew Kadey MSc, RD 

Chipotle Salsa Verde

  • 1 lb tomatillos (about 10), husked
  • 1 green bell pepper, coarsely chopped
  • 1⁄2 c cilantro
  • 1⁄3 c mint
  • 1⁄4 c pumpkin seeds, unsalted, roasted
  • 3 green onions, coarsely chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, chopped
  • Juice of 1⁄2 lime
  • 1 7-oz can chipotle chili pepper in adobo sauce
  • 1⁄2 tsp cumin powder
  • Pinch salt (optional)

1. Simmer tomatillos in a pot of water until tender, about 10 minutes (skip this step if using canned  tomatillos).

2. Drain and add to a food processor or blender, along with remaining ingredients. Pulse into a slightly chunky mixture. Serve with tortilla chips, spoon over fish, or use as a taco topping.

Makes 6 servings

Nutrition Information Per Serving: 62 calories, 3.5 grams (g) fat, 1g saturated fat, 7 g carbohydrate, 4 g sugar, 2.5 g protein, 2 g dietary fiber, 8 milligrams sodium.

Recipe courtesy Matthew Kadey MSc, RD

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