Researchers give hot chiles a reprieve


September 06, 1994|By Joe Graedon and Dr. Teresa Graedon

John is a hot pepper junkie. While his addiction is perfectly legal, he keeps searching for hotter chile peppers. Hardly a day goes by that John doesn't get a big dose of capsaicin, the active ingredient in hot sauce.

When a report surfaced early this year that hot peppers had been linked to stomach cancer, John was devastated. He even tried to control his craving. But he wasn't able to go cold turkey on chiles. Sometimes he would sneak salsa on the side when his wife wasn't watching.

Now, reanalysis of the data should make John and millions of other pepper heads happy. Chiles have been given a reprieve.

The research was carried out in Mexico City, where pepper-eating is common. Epidemiologists from Yale University, together with scientists from Mexico's National Institute of Public Health, collected information from approximately 1,000 people. Those who said they really enjoyed "getting burned" had a far higher risk of stomach cancer (17 times higher!) than those who said they could take peppers or leave them.

Animal research also seemed to suggest that capsaicin could increase the risk of digestive tract cancer. Taken together the findings were enough to raise an alarm for hot pepper lovers.

Now, cooler heads have prevailed. A more complete analysis of the Mexican data did not support a connection between the risk of stomach cancer and the actual number of peppers eaten. When investigators counted how many peppers people ate, they found no statistical difference between those who came down with cancer and those who did not.

Epidemiologists have also noted that stomach cancer is not particularly high in Mexico or other countries where hot peppers are highly prized. And there is reason to believe that some components of peppers might have health benefits.

Animal studies show that capsaicin in small amounts can protect the stomach lining from damage due to aspirin. Researchers have confirmed that this spicy substance does not cause ulcers, as was once believed. Chiles are rich in beta carotene and vitamin C, which like capsaicin are antioxidants. Herbalists have used this compound for centuries to treat colds, lung irritation and digestive problems.

Drug companies have even capitalized on capsaicin for arthritis rubs. Because it depletes nerve endings of a chemical messenger called substance P that transmits pain signals to the brain, capsaicin has been used in products like Heet Liniment, Sloan's Liniment, Recapsin, Theragen and Zostrix. Capsaicin creams have also been tried for skin problems like psoriasis and hives and diabetic nerve pain.

The controversy over whether capsaicin contributes to cancer is not completely resolved. More research is needed. But for the moment, John and other hot pepper addicts can breathe a little easier so long as they don't overindulge.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Dr. Teresa Graedon is a medical anthropologist and nutrition expert.

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