Hot, spicy foods are well known for providing various health benefits to those who consume them, and now research suggests that the hot chilli pepper may hold the secret for combating weight gain.
Researchers from the University of Adelaide in Australia have found that important receptors in the stomach that tell us when we're full may be impaired by a high-fat diet. These receptors, called TRPV1 receptors, are also known as hot chilli pepper receptors, as they respond to capsaicin, an active compound of the fruit (yep, we double-checked, it's a fruit). Capsaicin is what gives the chilli its heat, and previous studies have shown that it can contribute to reduced food intake.
"The stomach stretches when it is full, which activates nerves in the stomach to tell the body that it has had enough food. We found that this activation is regulated through hot chilli pepper or TRPV1 receptors," said Amanda Page, lead author of the study, in a press release.
"It is known from previous studies that capsaicin, found in hot chillies, reduces food intake in humans. And what we've discovered is that deletion of TRPV1 receptors dampens the response of gastric nerves to stretch – resulting in a delayed feeling of fullness and the consumption of more food."
In other words, hot chillies contain a chemical that effectively tells us to stop eating them; this is a useful evolutionary habit for us to have picked up, since overconsumption of hot chilli peppers has been reportedly linked to hospitalisations and even death.
The challenge for researchers now is to take what we know about capsaicin and its interaction with the TRPV1 receptors in our stomachs and look at potential applications that could help people avoid unnecessary weight gain.
"The next stage of research will involve investigation of the mechanisms behind TRPV1 receptor activation with the aim of developing a more palatable therapy," said Stephen Kentish, co-author of the paper, which is published in PLOS ONE.
By "more palatable", the researchers mean finding a way of using the appetite-suppressing qualities of the chilli without bringing along its love-it-or-hate-it spicy characteristics. Let's face it, not everybody digs the heat.
"The aim is to see how feasible this is as a potential treatment not just for obesity itself but maybe also in the prevention of gaining weight. If [people] could take something which makes them feel fuller sooner that would of course go a long way to preventing people from reaching an obese position," Kentish told the ABC.
"What we really want to do is… potentially look at ways of exploiting this chemical without the hotness that's perceived when you eat food laden with chilli, so it's more just about making it more able to be consumed by a vast majority of people."