Eat Chili Peppers, Live Longer, Says Study

A new study has linked eating chili peppers with lower rates of cancer and cardiovascular issues.
Marcia Wendorf

A new study being presented at this week's virtual meeting of the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2020, will announce the surprising conclusion that eating chili peppers lengthens lifespans.

Previous research has shown that chili peppers may have an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anticancer, and blood-glucose lowering effect. A 2017 study that followed more than 16,000 Americans for almost 20 years found that those who ate the most chilies were 13% less likely to die prematurely.

In the new study, scientists looked at the health and dietary habits of over 570,000 people in the U.S., Italy, China, and Iran. Their conclusions were that people who regularly ate chili peppers had a:

  • 25% reduction in all-cause mortality
  • 23% reduction in cancer mortality
  • 26% reduction in cardiovascular mortality

Senior author of the study, Bo Xu, who is a cardiologist at the Heart, Vascular & Thoracic Institute of the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, told British newspaper The Independent: "We were surprised to find that in these previously published studies, regular consumption of chili pepper was associated with an overall risk-reduction of all-cause, cardiovascular disease, and cancer mortality."


The new study doesn't specify which types of chili peppers were eaten, or how much or how often they were consumed. As with the 2017 study and other previous studies, this one also did not demonstrate a causal link, merely the correlation between eating chili peppers and lower mortality. For example, the study did not attempt to answer the question of whether chili pepper-eaters had healthier lifestyles overall. However, if you want to get a jump start on improving your health, here's a quick guide to chili peppers.

Chili peppers

Chili peppers are members of the nightshade (or Solanaceae) family of plants. This family includes edible plants such as tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, bell peppers, and chili peppers. It also includes plants that have been used to derive the drugs scopolamine, which is used to treat motion sickness, atropine, which is used to regulate the heart rate, nicotine, and hyoscyamine.

Hyoscyamine is the active ingredient in ancient poisons, and some modern medicines. It is found in plants such as henbane, mandrake, angel's trumpets, jimsonweed, the sorcerer's tree, and deadly nightshade.

During the 1980s, the U.S. fell in love with the hot taste of chili peppers, which get their heat from the compound capsaicin. The heat of chili peppers is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU), and all mammals experience pain when eating chili peppers. However, birds do not, which means that they can also spread chili seeds.

The history of chili peppers

Chili peppers originated in Mesoamerica, which extends from Central Mexico to northern Costa Rica. Chili pepper plants had been domesticated by the Maya and Aztec peoples as far back as 5000 BCE and were used to flavor food as well as cure illness.

Most Popular

In 1492, when Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World, he was searching for a trade route to India, in part because people in Europe were clamoring for spices like black peppercorns, cloves, mace, and nutmeg, which were grown in India. When the Ottoman Empire shut off the most common trade routes, Spain's King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella sent Columbus to find another way. 

This search for a route to India is why Columbus named the Caribbean islands the "Indies", and why the indigenous people were called "Indians". In fact, chili peppers were called "peppers" because their heat reminded Europeans of their much-loved black peppercorns.

While Columbus did bring some chili peppers back to Europe, it was really Portuguese traders who disseminated them worldwide. Special credit goes to the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama who in 1498, first sailed from South America around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa and on to India.

As soon as they got their hands on the chili plants, people living on the Indian subcontinent planted them and began including them in their cuisine. Chili peppers soon began making an appearance in other Asian cuisines.

What are chili peppers?

Chili pepper pods are actually berries, and they can be eaten fresh, roasted, dried, crushed into powder, or preserved by pickling or immersing in oil. Dried chilies can be reconstituted in liquid then ground into a paste.

The flavor of the popular chipotle is actually achieved by smoking and drying jalapeño peppers, and ancho, another popular chili, is actually dried poblano peppers. Poblano peppers are also commonly stuffed with cheese in the popular Mexican dish chile relleno. The popular Mexican sauce mole includes both ancho and chipotle peppers.

In fact, it's not just Mexican cuisine that frequently utilizes chili peppers around the world. In Italy, puttanesca and arrabbiata sauces both use chili peppers. In Hungary, paprika is made from dried chili peppers. Indian curries often include either fresh or dried chilies, and Caribbean jerk chicken is made with the super spicy Scotch bonnet chili.

Many Chinese dishes utilize oil fried dried chilis. In Thailand, chili pastes and sauces are made with fresh or dried chilies, while in Indonesia, the ubiquitous condiment sambal features dried chilies.

Around the world, thousands of varieties of hot sauces and pastes are made from chili peppers, including harissa from North Africa, Sichuan chili oil from China, and sriracha from Thailand.

Types of chili peppers

1. Anaheim pepper - SHU 500 - 2,500

Eat Chili Peppers, Live Longer, Says Study
Anaheim pepper Source: maxsol7/iStockPhoto

Named for the Southern California city where they are grown, Anaheim peppers are mild and flavorful without being hot. They are sometimes stuffed with meat or cheese.

2. Poblano pepper - SHU 1,000 - 2,000

Eat Chili Peppers, Live Longer, Says Study
Poblano pepper Source: schmez/iStockPhoto

Originating in Puebla, Mexico, these large and mild chilis when dried are referred to as ancho chilis. Poblano peppers are stuffed with meat and cheese then fried to make chile rellenos.

3. Jalapeño pepper - SHU 2,500 - 5,000

Eat Chili Peppers, Live Longer, Says Study
Jalapeño pepper Source: Creativeye99/iStockPhoto

These popular chilis show up in nachos, guacamole, salsas, and banh mi sandwiches. When smoked, they are referred to as chipotle peppers.

4. Serrano peppers - SHU 6,000 - 23,000

Eat Chili Peppers, Live Longer, Says Study
Serrano pepper Source: sangfoto/iStockPhoto

Serrano means "of the mountains" and Serrano peppers are grown in Hidalgo and Pueblo, Mexico. This pepper packs some serious heat and can be used in many of the same dishes as Jalapeños.

5. Cayenne peppers - SHU 30,000 - 50,000

Eat Chili Peppers, Live Longer, Says Study
Cayenne pepper Source: MahirAtes/iStockPhoto

These peppers are ground into a fine red powder and show up on spice racks as Cayenne Pepper. Lately, Cayenne Pepper is also added to foods like hot chocolate.

6. Tabasco peppers - SHU 30,000 - 50,000

Eat Chili Peppers, Live Longer, Says Study
Tabasco pepper Source: chonticha wat/iStockPhoto

Named for the Mexican state of Tabasco, these are the peppers used to make Tabasco Sauce. 

7. Bird's Eye/ Thai Chili/ Piri Piri - SHU 50,000 - 250,000

Eat Chili Peppers, Live Longer, Says Study
Bird's eye/Thai chili/Piri Piri pepper Source: maxsol7/iStockPhoto

These peppers are often used in Asian dishes, including curries, stir-fries, sauces and salads, and African and Thai dishes.

8. Habanero peppers - SHU 100,000 - 350,000

Eat Chili Peppers, Live Longer, Says Study
Habanero pepper Source: Tree4Two/iStockPhoto

These small orange and red peppers come from the Amazon region of South America, and they have become a popular addition to salsas and sauces.

9. Scotch Bonnet pepper - SHU 80,000 - 400,000

Eat Chili Peppers, Live Longer, Says Study
Scotch Bonnet pepper Source: blackwaterimages/iStockPhoto

These small red peppers look like Scottish Tam O'Shanter caps, hence their name. These blow-your-head-off peppers are used in Caribbean cuisine including jerk dishes where they taste almost sweet.

10. Ghost pepper - SHU 850,000 - 1,050,000

Eat Chili Peppers, Live Longer, Says Study
Ghost pepper Source: mlok/iStockPhoto

Native to India where it is called "bhut jolokia", Ghost peppers are often included in curries and chutneys. Farmers in India plant Ghost peppers in rows around their crops to keep hungry elephants away.

11. Carolina Reaper pepper - SHU 1,500,000 - 2,200,000

Eat Chili Peppers, Live Longer, Says Study
Carolina Reaper pepper Source: undefined undefined/iStockPhoto

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, this is the hottest chili pepper in the world. The Carolina Reaper was created by breeding other ultra-hot peppers together, and they are used to create hot sauces for those brave enough to try them.

Spicing up your dishes

If you want to add some flavor and heat to your dishes, here are the hot sauces most popular in the U.S. currently:

1. Cholula Hot Sauce - Buy Now

Eat Chili Peppers, Live Longer, Says Study
Cholula Hot Sauce Source: Juanmonino/ iStockPhoto

Their signature sauce contains Chile de árbol and piquín peppers, and the company also sells Green Pepper, Sweet Habanero, Chipotle, Chili Lime, and Chili Garlic sauces. You can buy it on Amazon.

2. Frank's RedHot Sauce - Buy Now

Eat Chili Peppers, Live Longer, Says Study
Frank's RedHot Sauce Source: DebbiSmirnoff/iStockPhoto

This was the secret ingredient in the original Buffalo Wings that premiered in Buffalo, New York in 1964. You can find it on Amazon.

3. Huy Fong Foods Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce - Buy Now

Eat Chili Peppers, Live Longer, Says Study
Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce Source: DanielBendjy/iStockPhoto

When this sauce first appeared in the early 1980s, it broke big. Created by a Vietnamese immigrant to the U.S., it's become a popular ingredient in all kinds of dishes. You can buy it on Amazon.

4. Tabasco Hot Sauce - Buy Now

Eat Chili Peppers, Live Longer, Says Study
Tabasco Hot Sauce Source: jahcottontail143/iStockPhoto

Originating in 1868, Tabasco sauce is a mixture of chili peppers, vinegar, and salt that is aged in barrels on Avery Island, Louisiana for up to three years. You can find it on Amazon.

5. Tapatío Hot Sauce - Buy Now

Tapatío Hot Sauce
Tapatío Hot Sauce Source: Amazon

Tapatío is the name for people from Guadalajara, Jalisco, which is Mexico's second-largest city. You can buy it on Amazon.

Chili pepper and hot sauce eating contests

Most chili pepper and hot sauce eating competitions have been canceled due to COVID-19; however, you can check out these 2021 contests.

So, the next time you sit down to a nice plate of Kung Pao chicken or Indian curry, or a steaming bowl of Tex-Mex chili, besides enjoying your food, you just might be saving your life.