Academic Minute Podcast

Paul Terry, University of Tennessee – Spicy Food and Long-Term Health

Do you like your food spicy?

Paul Terry, professor in the division of epidemiology at the University of Tennessee, explores how this type of cuisine can affect us.

Paul Terry is a chronic disease epidemiologist who enjoys spicy foods.

Spicy Food and Long-Term Health

In September 2023, a 14-year-old boy died after consuming a spicy pepper as part of the viral “one chip challenge.” The Paqui One Chip Challenge uses Carolina Reaper and Naga Viper peppers, which are among the hottest peppers in the world. While the boy’s death is still under examination by health officials, it has gotten some of the spicy chips being used in these challenges removed from stores.

Other than possible rare cases of death, the short-term effects of consuming extremely spicy foods range from a pleasurable sensation of heat to an unpleasant burning sensation across the lips, tongue and mouth. These foods can also cause various forms of digestive tract discomfort, headaches and vomiting.

As the capsaicin content of a pepper increases, so does its ranking on the Scoville scale, which quantifies the sensation of being hot. Peppers range in Scoville Heat Units from 0-2,000 (for mild peppers), 2,500-8,000 (for jalapeno peppers), to over 1.5 million (for extremely hot peppers). The Paqui One Chip Challenge is said be around 1.7 million Scoville Heat Units. Warning: it’s extremely hot, and it’s marketed for adults only.

There are also potential risks and benefits of long-term spicy food consumption. Studies report mixed results, with some outcomes more strongly linked to spicy food consumption that others. For example, some experts state with confidence that spicy food does not cause stomach ulcers, whereas the association with stomach cancer isn’t as clear.

However, when taking heart disease, cancer, and all other causes of death in a study population into consideration, the evidence from large population-based studies suggests that spicy food does not increase the risk of all-cause mortality and may actually decrease the risk. But, regardless of what studies say, when it comes to eating very spicy foods, it’s good to listen to your body.

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