Eating more than one teaspoon of salt in one day goes against the recommendations of the American Heart Association, but eating bland food is no fun. A new study shows how spicy food can lower the desire for salt, subsequently lowering blood pressure and keeping it at a healthy level.
High blood pressure, AKA hypertension, is one of the most frequently studied risk factors for heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular disease. Scientists know that keeping blood pressure at a healthy level is vital for maintaining cardiovascular health. Certain foods, like those with lots of salt, can increase blood pressure, but eating spicy foods may help people resist the temptation of salty food.
“Trace amounts of capsaicin, the chemical that gives chili peppers their pungent smell, enhance[s] the perception of food being salty," explained senior study author Zhiming Zhu. Based on this finding, Zhu and his team of researchers from the Third Military Medical University in Chongqing, China wanted to see if eating spicy foods could also reduce salt consumption.
Capsaicin is one of several compounds called capasaicinoids, and what most people would describe as “hot” or “spicy” is actually not technically a taste but a different sensation; there are no taste buds associated with capsaicinoids.
In a study of 606 Chinese adults, researchers analyzed the varying preferences for salty and spicy flavors, looking for accompanying trends in blood pressure levels. They found that those with a “high spicy preference” had on average lower blood pressure and consumed less salt than people who liked spicy food the least.
A second part of the study involved imaging techniques to observe two parts of the brain, both associated with detecting a “salty” sensation: the insula and orbitofrontal cortex. Results showed that salty and spicy sensations in the brain shared similar detection areas. Additionally, spicy food increased brain activity in areas also activated by salt, increasing a person’s sensitivity to salt so they generally needed less to be satisfied with a food’s saltiness.
Zhu says that in general, a good way to cut down on salt consumption is to use a lot of spices during cooking: “Habit and preference matter when it comes to spicy food, but even a small, gradual increase in spices in your food may have a health benefit."
The present study was published in the journal Hypertension.