With the arrival of Cinco de Mayo, many of us celebrate all things Mexican, including the culinary side of Mexican culture. Mexican cuisine reminds us of many things, but chili peppers are prominent among them, if not for their vibrant colors then for their clarifyingly piquant taste. And just like Cinco de Mayo itself, which commemorates the Battle of Puebla in 1862, chili peppers have a history in that very same region of Mexico: Research indicates chilis have been cultivated in both Puebla and Oaxaca since 3000 B.C. Perhaps chilis have been cultivated for so long because of their significant nutritional and pharmaceutical properties.
Chili peppers are full of nutrients such as fiber, folate, vitamin B6, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, molybdenum, manganese, lutein, zeaxanthin, and lycopene—all of which impart significant health benefits, including eye health, immune function, enzyme synthesis, and antioxidant activity. But it is the alkaloid capsaicin that yields the most distinctive effects of chili peppers, both in the mouth and in the rest of the body. It is capsaicin that can light your mouth on fire if you do not routinely eat hot peppers. And it is also capsaicin that possesses several important pharmaceutical properties.
Capsaicin’s best known pharmaceutical effect is, ironically, pain relief. Although it will burn your mouth, capsaicin has soothing effects as a topical analgesic. Capsaicin formulations have been shown to be useful in alleviating pain associated with diabetic neuropathy, osteoarthritis, and psoriasis. Consequently, there are now numerous over-the-counter and prescription analgesic products with capsaicin as the active ingredient, including pain patches.
Capsaicin also effects your body in perceptible ways. It raises the body’s temperature and, thus, may temporarily help burn extra calories. A UCLA study found that a synthetic form of the chemical allowed obese patients to burn an average of 80 extra calories per day. Which, of course, gives “feel the burn” new gustatory meaning. So the next time you break a sweat while eating your favorite chili pepper dish, yes, you really are burning a few extra calories. And just as runners experience a runner’s high because of the release of endorphins, so, too, do pepper aficionados because capsaicin causes an endorphin rush. The result is a special combination of pain and pleasure that may often inspire a competitive attitude among “chiliheads.”
Perhaps the most emergent part of our knowledge of capsaicin’s effects, however, is in the area of cancer research. A 2006 study at UCLA’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center found that capsaicin inhibited the growth of prostate cancer cells in mice. And in 2007 Nottingham University researchers found that capsaicin may kill lung and pancreatic cancer cells by attacking their mitochondria, while leaving the mitochondria of healthy cells alone. Research continues on capsaicin’s effects on cancer cells, with clinical trials yet to occur.
Even as research progresses, there is no doubting the piquant, perhaps thrilling experience that chili peppers give people celebrating Cinco de Mayo and other events. People are unique in relishing that thrill. As psychologist Paul Bloom says in How Pleasure Works, “Pleasure from pain is uniquely human. No other animal willingly eats such foods when there are alternatives. Philosophers have often looked for the defining feature of humans—language, rationality, culture and so on. I’d stick with this: Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce.”