Longer Living Through Spice: Collating the Health Benefits of Heat

Longer Living Through Spice: Collating the Health Benefits of Heat

At the risk of becoming an all-chili-pepper, all-the-time newsletter, I’m bringing you more news this week from the capsaicin front. (Maybe it’s the wintery weather? I’m subconsciously seeking out all sources of heat…?)

A new study points to spicy pepper consumption as an overall mortality reducer, especially from cardiovascular or cancer-related causes. This study is the first-time chili’s blood-glucose-reducing, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties have been looked at in concert, amalgamating the results of nearly 5000 (!) previous studies to create a bigger picture.

“The health and dietary records of more than 570,000 individuals in the United States, Italy, China and Iran were used to compare the outcomes of those who consumed chili pepper to those who rarely or never ate chili pepper. Compared to individuals who rarely or never ate chili pepper, the analysis found that people who ate chili pepper had:  

  • a 26% relative reduction in cardiovascular mortality;
  • a 23% relative reduction in cancer mortality; and
  • a 25% relative reduction in all-cause mortality.”

These rates of reduction are stunning and immediately left me wanting to know more. But the study’s lead author, cardiologist Dr Bo Xu, says that this data is only a tantalizing taste (pun intended) of possible dietary influences of heart health and cancer prevention. In particular, future studies need to regularize exact amounts and type of chili peppers that net results, as well as other variables like study participant health info. Doing this will narrow down the “why” of chili’s effect on human health.

So, while the researchers work on their data and a final paper, I’ll kill the time by thinking about incorporating chili pepper into my diet more. While I still maintain I have nothing to prove in the spice-withstanding department, I’m happy to take a little heat for some potential health payoff. Maybe once my tolerance is up, the results will be in!

Brouhaha Boils Over Borscht Beginnings

Soup season is coming for us! The colder temps and shorter days have prompted me to haul out my giant pot and start simmering some of my family’s favourites. (Not to toot my own horn, but my classic chicken soup is legendary.)
Soup is the great unifier: Not only do most individual humans like it, but every culture boasts its own unique bowls of goodness.
Especially Ukraine; or, so says chef Ievgen Klopotenko. The Kyiv restauranteur and TV host bristles at the longstanding Russian claim to borscht, which he believes to be a dish of Ukrainian origin. He is so passionate about the issue that he has founded a non-profit and brought in the big guns — UNESCO — to claim borscht for his own country, rather than a powerful state that still represents the culturally homogenizing USSR.
“After months of research to back up his claim, Klopotenko says his application is now supported by the Ukrainian government.

This, despite that the Russian Foreign Ministry tweeted last year that borscht is the country’s ‘most famous and beloved dishes.’

But Klopotenko wants to be clear that he is not looking to stir up his country’s already tense relationship with Russia over the dish. Since 2014, more than 13,000 people have been killed in Ukraine’s battle against Kremlin-supported militants in the country’s east, according to the Washington Post.

‘It’s not about fighting. It’s about how it is — that this dish is ours. It’s not Russian,’ Klopotenko said. ‘But Russians, they want to take that because they think that there is no such nation as Ukrainians.’”
Though this dispute seems small, it is symbolically huge, mixing ingredients like national identity, autonomy, and sovereignty in the simmering pot of international relations. But Klopotenko isn’t losing sight of the uniting force of soup. He believes that staking a Ukrainian claim in this small, tasty way, might serve to ease tensions between the two countries. (He also provides tips on what to look for in an authentic borscht: A sweet-sour balance and the inclusion of kvass, or fermented beet juice, for depth of flavour!)
I am inspired both politically and culinarily by Klopotenko’s quest. The latter is easier to respond to: The least I can do is try out an authentic borscht recipe, and see how we like it. Good thing my giant pot is still out and ready…!

Chili Sensing Device Can Take the Heat — Instead of Your Mouth

I am wary of spicy foods. I’m not like those competitive Carolina-Reaper-eating maniacs; I have nothing to prove. I like a little bit of heat, but not so much it becomes an impediment to enjoying my dinner, rather than an enhancement. The problem with spice though is that it’s subjective — and once you tuck into that vindaloo, or taco, or mapo tofu, you are well past the point of no return.
Well, a team from Prince of Songkla University in Thailand (a country well-experienced in spicy cuisine) is here to save the cautious among us! They have invented an adorable widget that plugs into a smartphone, which can assess capsaicin levels of samples dropped into it, instantly. Shaped like a classic red chili, the portable device uses a paper sensor to soak up the chili pepper or food sample, and turn around a result that is then displayed on the smartphone screen. The technology behind this invention is tiny and fascinating. From the American Chemical Society:
“The paper-based electrochemical sensor within the device consisted of graphene nanoplatelets doped with nitrogen atoms to improve their electrical conductivity. When the team added a drop of diluted capsaicin to the sensor, the compound underwent oxidation and reduction reactions, producing an electrical current that the device detected. After optimizing the sensor, the researchers used it to determine capsaicin concentrations in six dried chili samples.”
The team focussed on portability, ease of use, and low cost. (While other capsaicin sensors do exist, they are too bulky and expensive to bring to the dinner table with you.) For me, this invention is a game-changer: no more guessing, tip-of-the-tongue-testing, or trying to decipher what the waiter really means by “medium.” Unfortunately, there’s no word yet on a commercial rollout of this device, but I await it with bated — and fiery — breath!