Spicy food is a staple in many Asian cuisines, but many westerners have a love-hate relationship with anything remotely spiced. Spicy food can be overwhelming to the untrained palate - if you haven't grown up eating peppery, hot foods, the taste of spice may be unpleasant.
If you do happen to be a spice enthusiast, you'll be interested to know that spicy foods have a lot more going for them than their flavor. This guide will look at the health benefits of spicy foods, and share a list of the best spices to cook with today.
Spicy Foods Health Benefits
Eating spicy food doesn't mean forcing yourself to swallow the hottest dish at your local Indian restaurant. Even mild spice, from less aggressive chilies and peppers, can have the following beneficial health properties:
1. Speeds Up your Metabolism
Certain spices, like turmeric, cumin, chilies, and cinnamon, have been found in numerous studies to reduce your appetite and slow down your metabolism. Although this effect is only mild, it suggests that eating spicy foods in a healthy diet could support somebody trying to lose weight.
2. Helps you to Live Longer
Several interesting studies have linked spicy foods to a longer lifespan, with one study finding that eating spicy foods once a day throughout the week could lower a person's mortality rate by 14 percent.
3. Combats Inflammation
Several spices are thought to have anti-inflammatory properties, and turmeric is especially beneficial in this area. Turmeric contains curcumin, which is an anti-inflammatory compound and may reduce inflammation in the body. Ginger is another good anti-inflammatory spice that has been used since ancient times to treat inflammatory conditions.
4. Kills Bacteria
An unusual benefit of spicy foods is their ability to kill certain harmful bacteria that can be dangerous to the body. Turmeric and cinnamon have antimicrobial properties that make them useful in fighting bacteria.
5. May Fight Cancer Cells
Spicy foods may even help protect against cancer, according to recent research. One study found that capsaicin in chili peppers can slow and destroy cancerous cells. Prostate cancer cells were destroyed by capsaicin in the study, while healthy cells were unharmed.
6. Boosts Mood
Certain compounds in spicy foods can increase the body's mood-boosting feel-good chemicals, dopamine and endorphins. These same chemicals are released when we eat sugary foods like chocolate - but the difference is that spicy foods are actually good for you, while the same can't be said about chocolate.
Best Spices to Cook With
If you're keen to reap the health benefits of spicy foods, you need to know which spices to cook with. The following spices can be purchased in fresh or dried form for convenience and added - sparingly! - to your dishes for a spicy health kick.
Paprika is one of the most popular Spanish spices, used to add a sweet, smoky kick to a variety of dishes, from sweet potato fries to traditional Mexican tacos and fajitas. Paprika is a dried spice made from a variety of capsicum peppers, and has a whole host of benefits.
Paprika's vitamin A content supports eye and immune health, and its antioxidant properties prevent free radical cell damage. Hot paprika, made from spicy cayenne peppers, contains capsaicin, which offers additional health benefits.
Ginger is a spice made from ground dried ginger root. You can cook with fresh ginger, but ginger spice is easier to work with because it requires no chopping or advanced prep work. Ginger originates from Southern Asia, which is why the spice is such a staple ingredient in most Asian dishes.
Ginger contains antioxidant compounds called gingerols, which promote healthy circulation, support the immune system, and promote good digestive health. Ginger is particularly popular as a natural anti-sickness and anti-nausea remedy. You can use ginger in both sweet and savory dishes.
Cayenne Pepper Powder
Cayenne pepper powder is a spice made from ground cayenne peppers. Cayenne powder is a good source of vitamin A, and contains a lot of capsaicin, which supports joint and immune health, stimulates digestive health, and supports metabolic function.
Cayenne pepper powder is a good choice for Mexican and Asian dishes. You can even add cayenne to chocolate and oatmeal for a spicy twist on your sweet dishes.
Habanero peppers are the hottest commercially-grown peppers, which means they're the best source of capsaicin you can find. These hot peppers, native to the Caribbean and South America, aren't for the faint-hearted - but if you're a fan of spice, there are plenty of health benefits of this spicy food to be had.
To mute the flavor of habanero, mix it with fats or creamy ingredients, such as a curry containing plain yogurt. You can also use neutral herbs like parsley and cilantro to tone down the spiciness of the pepper.
Cinnamon is a warm, sweet spice that is usually favored for winter dessert dishes. This pale brown spice comes from the ground bark of the Cinnamomum tree in Africa and Southeast Asia.
Bursting with antioxidants from compounds known as cinnamaldehydes, cinnamon supports healthy blood pressure and blood sugar, and boosts brain health. You can sprinkle cinnamon onto your breakfast dishes, bake it into pancakes, or add it to teas.
Curry powder isn't a single spice - it's a mix of dry Indian spices, including cardamom, coriander, turmeric, red pepper, cumin, and sometimes ginger and cinnamon.
This golden-colored powder is mildly spicy and offers antioxidant benefits thanks to the curcumin in turmeric. Curcumin supports liver, brain, digestive, and immune health. Curry powder is a fragrant, more flavorful alternative to cayenne pepper.
Bird's Eye Chilies
Bird's eye chilies are a hot variety of chili pepper that are used in a range of Thai and Vietnamese dishes. The chilies come from the birdseye plant, which grows in Southeast Asia and Ethiopia. Bird's eye chilies have a spicy, fragrant flavor.
Like habanero peppers, bird's eye chilies are some of the hottest chilies available, which means they have a high capsaicin content. This makes bird's eye chilies beneficial for increasing circulation, boosting metabolism, reducing heart disease risk, and supporting cardiovascular function.
Side Effects of Spices
In most cases, spicy foods will only have a positive effect on your health. However, studies have found that capsaicin may have several short term side effects, including vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain. If you're not tolerant to spices, it's not wise to eat extreme amounts of chili peppers, as you don't want to overstimulate the nervous system.
The good news is that the short term effects of spicy food are just that: short term. Eating too many chili peppers won't damage your stomach lining or intestines in the long run. There's also new research to counteract the rumor that spicy foods can cause stomach ulcers. The research shows that capsaicin may actually protect against stomach ulcers and act as a pain reliever. Still, it's best to increase your spice intake slowly if your body isn't accustomed to spicy foods.
Adding more spice to your diet doesn't have to be daunting. If you're interested in the health benefits of eating spicy foods, you don't need to eat the hottest pepper or chili products available.
There are plenty of benefits of spicy foods with a milder flavor, such as turmeric and curry powder. Try adding a sprinkle of spice to your dishes, or mild chilies or sweet bell peppers to provide flavor without too much heat.
And if even mild spices are too much for you, consider supplementing with capsaicin or ginger to enjoy the beneficial health effects of the food without the hot taste.
Remember, eating spicy foods won't cure your health problems, but adding more heat to your diet should contribute to your good health - so long as your diet is generally healthy already.