Why chili consumption really is good for you.

Chili Peppers
Credit: Mark Sandlin

In the center of many Southern tables, the bottles of hot sauce and cruets of pepper vinegar are as certain as the salt and pepper shakers. We're known to line up to eat chicken that's so hot that we must sign waivers. We are home to the world's hottest chile pepper and we have the paperwork to prove it. The Carolina Reaper, bred by Smokin' Ed Currie of the PuckerButt Pepper Company in Rock Hill, South Carolina, earned the Guinness World Record on August 7, 2013.

Yes, spicy heat hits the spot in the South, but those potent potions might be doing us more good than we realized. Research suggests that there are health benefits to chile consumption. From their capsaicinoids, to be more specific, which are the fiery compounds inside hot peppers that give them their oomph, from a hint to a wallop. Paradoxically, capsaicinoids are tasteless, so when we say that a chile pepper tastes hot, what we really mean is that it is irritating and aggravating our mouth, lips, eyes, and all the tender things from stem to stern.

Heat threshold and sensitivity varies from person to person, so although there is little consensus on how hot is hot, we can get an objective estimate by looking at a chile's Scoville score. A Scoville is a unit of measurement named for Wilbur Scoville, inventor of the test that measures these things. A mild chile, such as an Anaheim, is around 500 units, while the fierce chiles can clock in around 500,000 units. The aforementioned Carolina Reaper clocks in at a staggering 2.2 million SHUs. Shew boy.

The good news is that we don't have to duel with something as wicked as a Carolina Reaper to still reap benefits. Researchers are working on linking hot peppers to pain management and to the treatment of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, inflammation, weight loss and cancer. Here's some of what they've found so far, but keep in mind that you should always seek guidance and corroboration from a medical professional.

  • As an analgesic, capsaicin can help reduce pain and inflammation, which is why it is an active ingredient in some topical pain-relief ointments. As anyone who has teared up, turned drippy, and reached for a tissue after eating salsa can attest, hot peppers can open sinuses made stuffy by colds and allergies.
  • Eating hot peppers causes our bodies to release endorphins, which can lead to a rush of euphoria. Or maybe that's only the giddy feeling of relief that that last bite didn't kill us.
  • Hot peppers might help with weight loss. Some scientists suggest that capsicum consumption activates the healthy brown fat in our bodies that burns calories. Other research suggests that the peppers curb our appetites and make us feel satiated more quickly. That's interesting, but it makes sense that people will eat less of foods that make them feel as though their face is melting.
  • Some chiles are good sources of basic nutrients that confer health benefits, such as Vitamin C, Vitamin A, carotenoids,), flavonoids, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Won't hurt. Might help.

Health benefits notwithstanding, eating hot chile peppers brings joy to some of us. Embracing the burn makes us feel robust, burly, and indomitable. That's bound to do us some good. No matter what hot sauce brings to the table, we're going to keep bringing it to the table.