A new study published in the British Medical Journal brings new meaning to the phrase “spice of life.”

Widespread health perks

In the research, scientists at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences examined whether eating spicy foods had an influence on study participants’ lifespans. Previous studies have suggested that various spices, as well as their bioactive ingredient, capsaicin, may prevent obesity, cancer and inflammation.

Although the study was observational—meaning researchers didn’t confirm a cause and effect relationship between consuming spicy foods and living longer—researchers did observe that those who ate spicy food more frequently tended to live longer compared to those who didn’t prefer the taste.

"Participants who ate spicy foods almost daily had a 14 percent lower death risk compared to participants who consumed the foods less than once a week."

The study involved 487,375 participants ages 30 to 79, whom researchers enrolled via the China Kadoorie Biobank between 2004 and 2008. Study authors surveyed participants about their general health and physical measurements, as well as their consumption of alcohol, vegetables, red meat and spicy foods.

They adjusted for potentially confounding factors including level of education, marital status, age and physical activity. Researchers didn’t include participants with a history of serious health issues such as stroke, heart disease and cancer.

In a median follow-up of about seven years, study authors reported 20,224 deaths total.

Pass the hot sauce

Ultimately researchers observed that the more spicy food participants ate, the longer their lifespan tended to be. Participants who ate spicy foods almost daily had a 14 percent lower death risk compared to participants who consumed the foods less than once a week, researchers reported in their paper.

Fresh and dried chili peppers were the most commonly reported spices in the study.

The relationship held true regardless of gender, but lower death risks from cancer, ischaemic heart and respiratory diseases and more frequent consumption of spicy foods was most prevalent among women. Despite previous studies linking daily alcohol consumption to a longer lifespan, study authors found that the association between spicy food and an extended life was stronger among those people who didn’t drink alcohol.

Whether the spicy food itself or their ingredients were responsible for the lower death rates remains to be seen. Researchers said bioactive ingredients like capsaicin and vitamin C, ingredients that are replete in fresh chili, may drive the link.