Brain and Body

Adding Hot Sauce to Meals Could Slow Cancer Cell Growth

December 10, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

A row of bottles of hot sauces.
Photo credit: Alan Turkus/flickr (CC by SA 2.0)

Even more reason to add hot sauce to everything.

Science has great news for those of you who like to give your taste buds a little kick — adding hot sauce to your meals could be one of the easiest ways to improve your diet, and it could actually slow the growth of cancer cells.

A study back in 2006 highlighted how high doses of capsaicin, an active component of chili peppers, slowed the growth of prostate cancer cells in mice by up to 80 percent. More recent studies have added to the evidence that spicy foods could provide a number of health benefits, and David Popovich, a nutrition expert who studies the bioactive compounds in plants, believes it can be explained by apoptosis, according to TIME.

Apoptosis is described as a kind of cell “suicide” which leads to a higher turnover of cells and a recycling of cells that are no longer needed. “That’s one of the ways scientists think capsaicin and other active compounds in vegetables can prevent cancer development: by stimulating apoptotic cell death,” Popovich says.

SEE ALSO: Bacon and Hot Dogs Could Cause Cancer, WHO Warns

Just a couple of months ago in September, researchers in India found that spicy compounds bind to cancer cells and actually trigger changes in their internal structure. After capsaicin bound to the outer membrane of cancer cells, the scientists observed it lodge itself in and appear to prompt chemical changes in the cells. In some cases, if there was enough of the spicy compound, it actually caused the membranes to come apart, as reported by ScienceAlert.

To get the high dose of capsaicin needed to reap these benefits, we would have to be eating lots and lots of spicy chili peppers. To make the process more convenient (and less mouth-burning) some researchers are looking into the possibility of creating a concentrated form of capsaicin into a new anti-cancer drug.

But as TIME reports, the more fiery the pepper, the greater its capsaicin content, but that doesn’t always mean it’s the healthiest choice. In fact, José de Jesús Ornelas-Paz, a researcher of vegetable bioactive compounds and professor at the Research Center for Food and Development in Mexico, says the most health benefits come from the entire chili pepper, not just the capsaicin.

“Pungent peppers are a cocktail of bioactive compounds,” Paz says. “Blending, cutting and cooking improve the release of [these compounds] from pepper tissue, increasing the amount available for absorption.”

When eating chili peppers, it’s the best time to add a little fat to your meal. Capsaicin is a fat-soluble compound, so pairing it with some fats or oils helps your body absorb them better.

Popovich told TIME that his ideal hot sauce includes red habanero peppers, vinegar, a bit of salt and some garlic. He says if you can take the spice, embrace the “hot sauce rainbow,” since each color contains different carotenoids, or organic pigments found in plants.

Unfortunate news for all Sriracha lovers: sweetened chili sauces are often high in sugar and sodium, so it’s always best to read the labels before stocking up on hot sauce.

“The bottom line is that any kind of vegetable material you consume will improve your health,” Popovich says. “But hot peppers are really beneficial for you, if you can take the spice.”

So it all comes down to how well you can take the heat.

Read next: Scientists are Developing Sausages that Could Reduce Cancer Risk

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