Fact/Fiction: Does eating chilli peppers protect against heart disease?

Old news, truthfully retold. This week we discover whether changing your diet can take the heat off your ticker

How it was told

Depending on your palate, chillis are either an essential ingredient for every meal or an absolute no-no.

They were a hot topic in the news on December 16 when stories about the spicy fruits’ potential to protect from heart attacks hit the headlines in the UK and abroad.

All the stories stemmed from a study by Department of Epidemiology and Prevention of IRCCS Neuromed in Pozzilli, Italy that was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Who would have thought that would prove fertile ground for Spice Girls puns? Because that’s what we got from The Sun and The Telegraph.

The red-top paper led the way with “SPICE UP YOUR LIFE Eating chillies four times a week ‘HALVES risk of heart attack and stroke’” while The Daily Telegraph followed with “Spicing up your life could make it last longer, study on chilli suggests”.

Elsewhere, the story was also covered by The Times, who kept it simple with “Chilli lovers have healthier hearts”.

Metro opted for “Eating chilli peppers could halve your risk of dying from heart disease” and The Independent’s headline was: “Chilli eaters have fewer deadly heart attacks, say scientists.”

As we head into 2020, the stories lead to one burning question – is there any truth in them, or do they leave a sour taste in the mouth?

Facts. Checked

While there is plenty of merit to the study, it does not show a causal link between chilli consumption and cardiovascular strength, and there are a few factors that suggest you should treat the stories with caution.

The academics followed the health status of 22,811 citizens in the Molise region of Italy for eight years, on average, before comparing that data to their eating habits.

Their conclusions showed an association between eating chilli peppers and a decreased risk of dying of heart attack. Eating chillis four times a week can cut down the risk by 40 per cent while there is a “reduced mortality risk for every cause of 23 per cent compared to those who do not like them”.

So far, so good for the news stories and some even hinted that there was no causal link, like The Independent, and The Telegraph was also cautious in its headline. However, the study doesn’t answer the question of whether the health outcomes are down to eating chillis or another factor.

The study, substantial though it was, centred on a specific community and, therefore, people who have a similar diet. So it is unclear if the chilli peppers are the magic bullet here or if the reduced heart attacks are down to the increased amount of herbs and spices in the Mediterranean diet. This is the view of Dr Duane Mellor, a dietician and senior teaching fellow at Aston University in Birmingham, who was quoted only in The Independent.

He said: “This is an interesting paper. It does not show a causal link, and hints that those who were following a more traditional Mediterranean diet seemed to benefit less than those not following this type of diet. This could suggest it is how chillies are used as part of an overall dietary pattern and lifestyle.

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“It is plausible people who use chillies, as the data suggests, also use more herbs and spices, and as such are likely to be eating more fresh foods, including vegetables. So, although chillies can be a tasty addition to our recipes and meals, any direct effect is likely to be small and it is more likely that it makes eating other healthy foods more pleasurable.”

So to feel the benefits in the UK, you may have to look at replicating the Mediterranean diet.

However, the study’s authors do accept in their conclusions that further research into capsaicin, the component providing the beneficial effects, will be necessary to understand the biochemical mechanisms behind it all.

Illustration: Miles Cole