Hot stuff: chilli, curry and long lives

chilliI love writing for the Behind the Headlines service at NHS Choices, because they ask you to do a good job. While mainstream health reporting is so often about finding a catchy angle, or a good headline, BtH is all about looking hard at the evidence and making an assessment of how useful a new piece of research really is.

Last week I was asked to review one of those ‘food X = cure for Y’ studies. You know the sort, tomatoes cure cancer, herrings cut heart disease, caviar makes you live longer. The public, rightly, are suspicious of these studies. There are a million and one ways in which the ‘finding’ can be confounded by other aspects of a person’s lifestyle. I’m not sure whether there has been a study linking caviar to longer life, but I bet there is a link, as there would be for any luxury foodstuff available only to the rich.

This time the study (published in The BMJ) looked at the link between eating a diet rich in chilli pepper and mortality (ie death). The study found people who ate chilli pepper at least once a week were less likely to die during the course of the 7 year follow up than those who ate chilli less often.

It was interesting for a few reasons. It was huge, for one thing, and well-conducted. Many of confounding factors had been recorded and adjusted for, reducing the chance that this represented a dodgy result. And it’s plausible – there have been other studies showing that chilli, or its active ingredient capsaicin, may have benefits for human health.

The study was also conducted in China. The authors cautioned that the results needed to be duplicated outside of China to ensure they were generalisable. The lifestyle of a vegetarian, teetotal chilli-eating Chinese agricultural worker might be a world away from a British call-centre worker, washing down a beef vindaloo with 14 poppadums and 6 pints of lager on a Friday night.

How did the great British press respond? With headlines like Curries are good for you, and Three curries a week could lower risk of death, naturally. Chinese curry, anyone?

See my analysis of the study here.

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