Archive for February 2016

Is the chilli pepper a friend or a foe PT1?

Now research indicates that the chilli peppers may make our lives more interesting as well as also make them longer.

Now research indicates that the chilli peppers may make our lives more interesting as well as also make them longer. “Humans come into the Western hemisphere about 20,000 years ago,” says Paul Bosland from New Mexico State University. “And they come into contact with a plant that gives them pain – it hurts them. Yet five separate times, chilli peppers were domesticated in the Western hemisphere because humans found some usefulness – and I think it was their medicinal use.”

The potential for both health and harm has always been a defining characteristic of chilli peppers, and among scientists, doctors and nutritionists it remains a matter of some dispute which prevails.

A huge study, published this summer in the British Medical Journal, seemed to indicate that a diet filled with spices – including chillies – was beneficial for health.

A team at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences tracked the health of nearly half a million participants in China for several years. They found that participants who said they ate spicy food once or twice a week had a mortality rate 10% lower than those who ate spicy food less than once a week. Risk of death reduced still further for hot-heads who ate spicy food six or seven days a week.

Chilli peppers were the most commonly used spice among the sample, and those who ate fresh chilli had a lower risk of death from cancer, coronary heart disease and diabetes.

One of the authors of the study, Lu Qi – who confesses that he is very keen on spicy food – says there are likely to be many reasons for this effect.

“The data encourages people to eat more spicy food to improve health and reduce mortality risk at an early age,” says Qi, a nutritionist at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, though he adds that spicy food may not be beneficial for those with digestive problems or stomach ulcers.

While the health-promoting properties of chillies may not be fully understood, at least we have a good idea where to look to find the source of them. Cut a chilli open and you will see yellow placenta-like fronds that attach the seeds to the inside of the fruit. In most types of chilli, this is the location of the spice’s secret weapon – capsaicin.

It is capsaicin that makes chillies hot. The heat is measured in Scoville heat units, which is the number of times a sample of dissolved dried chilli must be diluted by its own weight in sugar water before it loses its heat. For a green bell pepper this is zero. But habanero peppers have a Scoville value of between 100,000 and 350,000. For pure capsaicin the figure is 16 million.

It is sometimes said that people in hot countries use more chilli because it makes them sweat, which cools them down. But in 1998, researchers at Cornell University pointed out that the greater use of spices in countries such as India, Thailand and China was likely to be linked to their anti-microbial function. By studying recipe books from all over the world, the researchers found that spices including chilli were more likely to be used close to the equator, and were also used more in humid valleys than on high plateaux.

This correlation with climate, and the attendant risk of infectious disease, was greater than the link with the right growing conditions for the spices. In other words, humans in dangerous climates developed a taste for chilli which, as Joshua Tewksbury puts it, “probably saved them a lot of death”.

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