If you're the type of person who breaks out the hot sauce at the start of every single meal, congratulations - you're really onto something there. A slew of recent studies have been piecing together evidence that capsaicin - an active component of chili peppers - promotes a higher turnover of cells in the body, which could explain why eating spicy foods has been linked to a reduced risk of mortality and slowed cancer development.
"The bottom line is that any kind of vegetable material you consume will improve your health," nutrition expert David Popovich from Massey University in New Zealand told TIME magazine. "But hot peppers are really beneficial for you, if you can take the spice."
Popovich has been investigating the mechanism by which capsaicin appears to slow the growth of cancer cells in the lab. Back in 2006, researchers discovered that high doses of capsaicin could slow the growth of prostate cancer cells in mice by up to 80 percent, while leaving the healthy cells alone, and just a couple of months ago, a separate team demonstrated for the first time how this spicy compound binds to cancer cells and triggers changes in their internal structure.
It's not yet known exactly how capsaicin is interacting with cancer cells to slow their growth, but scientists have observed it binding to the outer membrane and loging itself in, which appears to trigger chemical changes in the surface of the cell. "If you add enough of it, it actually causes the membranes to come apart," Fiona MacDonald reported for us back in September.
Popovich has observed the slowed growth of cancer cells in his own lab, and told Mandy Oaklander from TIME that the most popular hypothesis to explain what's going on here is that the capsaicin is promoting a process known as apoptosis - programmed cell death that leads to a higher turnover of cells. It's basically regulated cell suicide in the interest of cleaning up cells that are no longer needed.
"That's one of the ways scientists think capsaicin and other active compounds in vegetables can prevent cancer development: by stimulating apoptotic cell death," says Popovich.
While some researchers are investigating the potential of incorporating a concentrated form of capsaicin into a new anti-cancer drug, José de Jesús Ornelas-Paz from the Research Centre for Food and Development in Mexico told Oaklander the real benefits appear to come from the whole chili pepper - not just that one active ingredient.
"Pungent peppers are a cocktail of bioactive compounds," he said. "Blending, cutting and cooking improve the release of [these compounds] from pepper tissue, increasing the amount available for absorption."
Just as adding certain types of protein to a salad can actively improve your uptake of nutrients, research has shown that it's not just what you eat, but how you eat it. According to Ornelas-Paz, because capsaicin is a fat-soluable compound, you should definitely try pairing it with a bit of fat or oil to help your body absorb it (which isn't exactly difficult, unless you only like eating raw vegetables with your hot sauce).
As with many things to do with our diet, scientists still have to figure out the exact mechanism by which capsaicin could be altering our cells, but there's enough evidence out there to suggest that it's doing something beneficial. Back in August, a team from Harvard University published the results of a study that assessed the health of almost half a million Chinese adults, and found that those who ate spicy food six or seven times a week had a 14 percent lower mortality risk than those who seldom ate it.
So apply that spicy condiment with abandon until you're blinded by the salty tears of too much hot sauce sweet, sweet vindication. You might look ridiculous, but at least you know you've got science on your side.