If you are a lover of Chinese, Mexican, Indian, Malay cuisines, you should be no stranger to chillis, spice and everything nice. It begins with a tingle on your tongue. Then, it grows, it builds and it spreads, and then it sets things on fire.
Whether it is only an inconsequential ember or a full-scale inferno, that will depend on the cuisine you are having. Regardless, at some point, the rest of your body may respond by turning on the “sprinklers” to douse the flames with perspiration and a clamour for water.
Szechuan cuisine’s signature spice is well-known and has been spreading like wildfire in Singapore and the rest of the region with Szechuan “mala” (meaning ‘numbing spice’ in Chinese) shops opening every other day. So popular it is that you may even find people debating which “mala” shop offers the best spice for the price.
Raise the Heat and Lower Your Weight
Is the pain worthwhile, though? Other than drenching you in perspiration, giving you an embarrassing swell on the lips and a glowing red flush, could there be more to the spice?
If you ever need to justify the suffering and pain you are willing to go through for buffalo wings, Assam pedas (a spicy fish stew) or the choice of having the maximum spice with your “mala” hotpot, you will be happy to know that eat spicy food may help you lose weight.
Last year, researchers at the University Of Wyoming added even more evidence to support a long-held belief that spicy foods can help in weight loss by speeding up metabolism and burn calories faster.
There is also another popular theory, though yet to be studied, that you are less likely to overeat as spicy dishes are not the most comfortable things to wolf down. However, that’s not to say that spicy dishes are always healthy since they tend to be high in fat content or eaten with beers and icy sodas which can easily negate any weight loss benefits the chilli provides.
Fire in the Belly Keeps the Heart Healthy
Nevertheless, the benefits of eating chillis should not be discarded. A study involving 16,000 men, done by the University Of Vermont and published in 2017, found that chilli aficionados have a 13 per cent lower risk of premature death.
The researchers explained that capsaicin, the active component in chilli peppers that causes the spicy sensation, seemed to help reduce inflammation in the body. Those in the chilli-loving group were the least likely to die from cardiovascular diseases like heart attacks and stroke.
Not Just Spice But Also Everything Nice!
Chillies are packed full of nutrients like vitamins A and C, iron and potassium. A meagre 42g of chilli will provide for your daily vitamin C need, although there’s nothing meagre about the spice level from 42g of chillis.
Benefits of capsaicin also include a purported anti-cancer property when eaten together with ginger. A study published in the Journal Of Agricultural And Food Chemistry shows that capsaicin and a compound found in ginger called 6-gingerol may inhibit the growth of tumours.
While there are many reports that support the notion that capsaicin is beneficial to human health, especially with cancer, however, there are also reports that sing a different tune.
On the Flipside
The spice from capsaicin, when eaten in excess and when it gets too intense like those of the infamous Ghost Pepper or Carolina Reaper chilli varieties, it can become harmful to the stomach and oesophagus by causing inflammation. If anything causes inflammation or a feeling of burning, it must also be able to cause cell deaths; long-term inflammation is harmful to tissues.
As such, it is advised that individuals sufferers of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) avoid spicy foods since they are capable of irritating the stomach.
Addicted to Spice
You may like the spice you feel from eating a good sambal dish and even love yourself some chilli crabs, but technically, the burning sensation is essentially a pain signal sent by the nerves. These sensations are not limited to the tongue but also can be felt by the skin and mucous membranes of the nose, mouth and eyes.
Contrary to popular belief, spiciness is not a flavour, unlike sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. There is no part of the tongue that is unaffected from the heat of the chilli. To counter the pain signals, our body naturally responds to it by producing endorphins and dopamine.
Endorphins work by blocking nerve endings from sending more pain signals and dopamine is responsible for the sensation of pleasure. Because of this, eating spicy foods can trigger euphoria like that of a “runner’s high” in some people.
It can even go beyond just a general sense of pleasure, even. The love for spice may also turn into a desire for excitement. When experts at the Pennsylvania State University looked into the association of personality traits and a liking for spice, they found that people who tend to seek sensations – those who seek out thrills of riding in a roller coaster and gambling – were more likely to request for chillis when dining.