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Truth or Myth: Do Spicy Foods Cause Cancer?

Spicy foods like chilli have been a beloved ingredient in many cuisines around the world for centuries. Their fiery heat and unique flavour can add a kick to Friday night dinner, not to mention their impressive health benefits – but there’s a persistent rumour that this fruit (yep, chilli is a fruit!) could cause cancer – let’s find out if these claims are founded. 

The primary component responsible for the fiery heat in chilli peppers is capsaicin. This compound stimulates receptors in your mouth and on your tongue, creating the sensation of spiciness – and the sudden urge to drink water. (Spoiler alert, it only makes it worse!) Capsaicin is also used in topical creams for pain relief due to its ability to numb nerves. Before we dive into the link between chilli and an increased cancer risk, let’s first take a look at how it may mitigate that risk – yep, it always seems to be that research suggests foods both help and hurt us; think coffee, red wine and chocolate.

The Anti-Cancer Properties of Capsaicin 

Contrary to popular belief, capsaicin has shown some potential in cancer prevention and treatment. Research suggests that capsaicin may:

  • Inhibit Tumour Growth: Some studies have indicated that capsaicin can slow down the growth of certain types of cancer cells, including prostate cancer and lung cancer.
  • Induce Apoptosis: Capsaicin has been found to trigger apoptosis, which is a natural process that causes damaged or abnormal cells to self-destruct. This can help prevent the formation of cancerous tumours.
  • Anti-Inflammatory Effects: Chronic inflammation is a known risk factor for cancer. Capsaicin's anti-inflammatory properties may help reduce this risk.

Addressing the Cancer Concerns

While capsaicin's potential anti-cancer properties are promising, it's time to take a look at why some believe too much of the spicy stuff could cause cancer. Researchers have found high intake of chilli to be associated with stomach cancer in particular, while simultaneously finding it reduces our risk for other cancers. One study suggested that the capsaicin could irritate the stomach lining or lead to acid reflux in those who are prone to the condition, and this could indirectly raise the risk for stomach cancer as it increases inflammation and damage to the stomach. But it’s vital to understand that these associations aren’t cut and dry – there are a number of factors that significantly affect the effects of capsaicin, from our individual susceptibility to conditions like acid reflux, along with what the rest of our diet looks like – if you’re overdoing it on deep-fried, ultra-processed foods on the regular, chances are, these actions are weakening your stomach lining. Let’s take a look at why chillis may be associated with a higher cancer risk: 

  • Cultural Differences: The consumption of spicy foods varies significantly among different populations and regions. Some regions with a high intake of spicy foods have reported higher rates of stomach cancer. However, this association could be confounded by other dietary and lifestyle factors commonly observed in those regions.
  • Capsaicin's Effects: Capsaicin, the compound responsible for the spiciness of chili peppers, has been the focus of some studies. While capsaicin has shown potential anti-cancer properties in laboratory studies, the doses used in these experiments are often much higher than what a person would typically consume through dietary sources.
  • Acute Effects: Spicy foods can sometimes cause symptoms like heartburn, indigestion, and gastritis in susceptible individuals. Prolonged or severe irritation of the stomach lining could theoretically increase the risk of stomach cancer. However, this is still a subject of ongoing research.
  • Individual Variability: People's tolerance for spicy foods varies widely. What may be considered spicy to one person may not be to another. Individual factors, such as genetics and the condition of the digestive system, can influence how spicy foods affect the stomach.
  • Dietary Patterns: It's important to consider overall dietary patterns. In regions where spicy foods are common, other dietary and lifestyle factors, such as consumption of pickled or smoked foods, high salt intake, and alcohol consumption, may contribute to stomach cancer risk.
  • Culinary Choices: How you prepare and consume chilli peppers matters. Frying them in unhealthy oils or adding them to high-fat, calorie-laden dishes may offset potential health benefits. For instance, fresh chillis used in a curry will offer greater benefits than dipping deep-fried chips in sweet chilli sauce.

So, chilli peppers themselves do not cause cancer. In fact, capsaicin, the compound responsible for their spiciness, may have some anti-cancer properties. But, no single food can prevent or cause cancer on its own, and the ways we eat can absolutely influence our risk. Considering the research findings around stomach cancer, while inconclusive and highly variable, it’s worth – as always – eating foods in moderation. Maintaining a balanced diet, rich in a variety of nutrients and low in processed foods, combined with a healthy lifestyle, remains the most effective way to reduce cancer risk. So, feel free to enjoy the heat of chilli peppers in your meals, but remember that a well-rounded diet and overall healthy habits are your best allies in the fight against cancer.

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2 Responses

I Quit Sugar

I Quit Sugar

April 01, 2024

Hi Toni! We’re sorry to hear that, but so glad that your son is cancer free now. A minimally-processed, whole foods-based and anti-inflammatory diet will be the best option to maintain optimal health – though, unfortunately, it isn’t a guarantee to prevent cancer. But, it is one of many integral elements to living a healthy life – we can recommend prioritising veggies (cruciferous vegetables like beets, radish, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and mustard greens are anti-inflammatory) and onions, garlic and ginger are also known for their impressive antioxidants. Turmeric is also highly beneficial, along with herbal teas like green tea, mountain tea and nettle tea. Tomatoes and berries also pack a lot of antioxidants.
Remember to prioritise whole foods and minimise added sugar, preservatives and ultra-processed foods like sugary cereals and white bread.
While many things are out of our control in the journey of cancer, we can reduce inflammation through diet, exercise and stress management – but these elements are still only a risk reduction rather than prevention, as there are so many elements involved in the condition. We’re wishing all the best for you and your son – The IQS Team

Toni Thoroughgood

Toni Thoroughgood

April 01, 2024

Hi our 15 year old son got diagnosed with bone cancer in his right leg which has since been amputated as well. A cancer nodule was found in his lung which was removed in surgery. Would this plan help keep our son free from cancer?

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