Foods with intensely hot spices like Cayenne, chili, or curry elicit a strong reaction — eaters either love the powerful jolt of flavor and heat, or they avoid it at all costs, often using table pepper sparingly for fear of overwhelming their senses. The former group finds the latter wimpy, and the latter finds the former masochistic. Few have stopped to ask, though, which group will experience better heart health in the long run?
As it turns out, recent research suggests that spicy foods may help stave off heart health troubles, including heart disease and other cardiovascular maladies. A combination of behavioral factors and biochemical factors join forces to keep spicy food die-hards healthy, from their weight to their brains to their bodies.
A team of researchers in China zeroed in on Capsaicin, the chemical that gives spicy food that familiar kick. On a molecular level, capsaicin affects the brain the same way that salt does and “crowds out” the craving for salty foods, long known to be the culprit of unhealthy blood pressure and weight gain. By reducing the desire for salty foods, spicy foods keep eaters’ arteries clean as a whistle and keep their blood pressure where it belongs in a healthy individual.
Spice lovers also tend to enjoy their food more and can make a delicious snack out of otherwise flavorless, watery vegetables. From asparagus to baby carrots to celery, adding spices and flavors to low-calorie high-fiber veggies will encourage eaters to eschew chips and candies in favor of a cleaner snack. Parents of picky children will tell you the same thing — yucky vegetables transform into yummy side dishes with the addition of some flavor.
In many Western cultures, spices fell out of favor for economic reasons, and our cuisines have yet to recover. Prior to the opening of the spice routes, spices like cinnamon, cardamon, and ginger were highly precious and risky to obtain. As such, they were reserved for the wealthiest members of society, and their food was heavily seasoned with spices that lit up every area of the tongue. However, easier travel and friendlier trading partners flooded Europe with spices from the Middle East and India. Spices lost their charm as a status symbol, so the wealthy looked for a new way to differentiate their meals from those of the lower class — so they all but stopped spicing their meats and stews.
Long story short, adding a little spice to your diet can offer huge heart health benefits.