Is there a safe limit to the amount of hot spices I should consume? (Western view)

Categories: Articles, Western Medicine

Is there a safe limit to the amount of hot spices I should consume?

Hot spices like tabasco sauce, red chili pepper, and black pepper are all seasonings used to “spice up” food, but they don’t necessarily have anything in common from a nutritional or chemistry standpoint. Tabasco(TM) sauce, for example, is usually made from a special variety of chili pepper called tabasco pepper, aged together with vinegar and salt. Chili peppers belong to the Solanaceae family of plants and have features in common with tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant. A key component of chili peppers is capsaicin-the component that brings the “fire” to these pungent foods. Black pepper belongs to a completely different family of plants called Piperaceae and features a different pungent component called piperine.

So you can see that in the case of these two types of spices, you aren’t getting the same compounds even though both spices make your food “hot.” From a health standpoint, it’s worth thinking about these hot spices as different when it comes to nutrients and other health-related properties. For example, a person with sensitivity to the nightshade (Solanaceae) vegetables will most likely want to avoid hot peppers since they belong to this food family. But this same person may do just fine with black pepper, which belongs to a different family of foods.

There are some health conditions in which hot spices are usually best avoided. Those conditions include heartburn (gastroesophageal reflux disorder, or GERD) and irritable bowel syndrome. There is some research to suggest that daily consumption of hot peppers can trigger GERD but that remains an area of controversy. We’ve seen one study showing increased risk of stomach cancer following consumption of 9-25 jalapeno peppers per day over a period of years, but whether it was the peppers alone or the peppers in combination with other factors could not be conclusively determined by the study. That’s a fairly high dose of jalapeno peppers, however, and it’s important to remember that in much lower amounts (like the amounts ordinarily used to season a recipe), hot peppers tend to show health benefits rather than health risks.

We’ve seen animal research showing health benefits to many of the hot spices. The capsaicin found in chili and cayenne peppers, for example, has been shown to help increase circulation in the digestive system, skin, and brain and may sometimes help to lower blood fat levels in persons who are eating a high-fat diet.

It’s important to choose high-quality hot spices when you are incorporating them into your diet. Poor-quality spices can be contaminated with aflatoxins and other unwanted compounds when not carefully produced, processed, and stored. Synthetic dyes may also be used in the making of some low-quality cayenne or chili powders. A great step that can help prevent all of the above problems is to purchase certified organic spices and make sure that you store them well. You’ll find specific storage tips for black pepper, cayenne pepper, and dried chili pepper on our website in the WHFoods List section (

Provided that you do not have any of the health problems listed above, select high-quality spices, store them properly, and do not push your intake to the level of a dozen or more hot peppers per day, we recommend following your own experience when it comes to selecting the best level of hot spices for you. Ask yourself whether your food leaves you feeling satiated and energized, or whether it seems to aggravate your sense of well-being. Ask whether you are having so many hot spices that you cannot appreciate other styles of food or whether your taste buds have lost their sensitivity to other subtle flavors. If you find yourself needing higher and higher levels of spice to satisfy your taste buds, you are likely to be experiencing a process called desensitization. Studies on the capsaicin found in chili peppers have shown that over time this substance can cause certain nerves in the body to become desensitized. Becoming desensitized means adjusting to the current level of spice and needing more spice to achieve the previous spicy sensations. If your style of eating is becoming more narrow due to your use of hot spices, you may want to make adjustments in the level of spice you use and see if that step helps open the door to enjoyment of more foods.


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