In my most recent book, The Fallacy The Calorie: Why The Modern Western Diet Is Killing Us And How To Stop It, the important role of herbs and spices in crafting not only a delicious but healthful cuisine is explored. Rescuing our taste buds from the banality of the modern Western diet with its endless and addictive layers of sugar, salt and fat is an important step in reclaiming our food freedom. Now a recent study on longevity suggests that adding a little spice to our lives may increase them.
The beneficial effects of herbs and spices have been described for centuries. Not only in terms of the palate pleasing properties, but also in terms of their medicinal and purported aphrodisiac effects. Some observational population studies have demonstrated an inverse relationship between spice consumption and mortality risk. In other words, the larger your spice fix the less risk of an early demise. An important corollary is that populations which consume foods that tend to be well seasoned with herbs and spices tend to consume significantly less of the highly processed and refined fast foods that constitute so much of the modern Western diet.
Increased spice as relates to increased heat also yields benefit. The ingestion of red chili peppers increases the consumption of the bioactive compound capsaicin, the source of heat in these hot peppers. The regular indulgence of a little hot stuff has been associated with a decrease in appetite and energy intake in people of Asian origin and Caucasians. Such a consumptive pattern may aid in decreasing the risk of becoming overweight and obese.
As discussed in The Fallacy the Calorie, obesity is being recognized as less a consequence of mere caloric consumption and more and more an early manifestation of chronic, continuous low level inflammation. Such a condition involves, if not originating at the level of, our individual gut microbiota. Such changes to the character and composition of our gut microbiome can result from many causes; but the most problematic perturbation is the self-inflicted result of our dietary choices.
Many herbs and spices not only flavor and season our comestibles, but they have positive bioactive affects far in excess of vitamin, mineral, micronutrient, phytochemical or antioxidant composition. In addition to helping us break the chains of the preprepared and nutrient poor offerings of the modern Western diet; these herbs and spices can positively alter the quality and character of our gut microbiome.
This helps explain why such a dietary pattern is beneficial not only in terms of obesity, but also observed in cardiovascular and gastrointestinal conditions, various cancers, neurogenic bladder, dermatological conditions and many others; all of which seem to have at their base a chronic continuous low level inflammatory process. Herbs and spices exhibit antibacterial activity and affect gut microbiota populations.
This study examined almost 20,000 men and women in China over a seven year period. The researchers found an inverse association between consumption of spicy foods and total mortality, even after adjusting for potential confounders. Compared with those who ate spicy foods less than once a week, those who consumed spicy foods almost every day had a 14% lower risk of death. Inverse associations were also observed for deaths due to cancer, ischemic heart diseases, and respiratory diseases. The associations were consistent in men and women. These relationships and risk reductions were independent of other risk factors of death.
Adding some spice (and herbs) to your life not only increases the variety and pleasure; it increases the duration!
Lv, J., Qi, L., Yu, C., Yang, L., Guo, Y., Chen, Y., . . . Li, L. (2015). Consumption of spicy foods and total and cause specific mortality: population based cohort study. BMJ, 351:h3942 http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h3942. (for the China Kadoorie Biobank collaborative group)