Spicy food may suppress cravings for salt, aid blood pressure control

People who enjoy spicy foods tend to eat less salt and have lower blood pressure, according to a study of 606 Chinese adults.

Compared to people who least enjoyed spicy foods, those with a high spicy preference averaged eight millimeters of mercury lower systolic and five mm Hg lower diastolic blood pressure numbers. They also consumed about 2.5 fewer grams of salt per day. Senior study author Zhiming Zhu, MD, and colleagues reported these findings in Hypertension on Oct. 31.

“Previously, a pilot study found that trace amounts of capsaicin, the chemical that gives chili peppers their pungent smell, enhanced the perception of food being salty,” Zhu said in a press release. “We wanted to test whether this effect would also reduce salt consumption.”

The researchers used imaging techniques to look at two regions of participants’ brains known to be involved in salty taste—the insula and the orbitofrontal cortex. They found spices triggered activity in the same areas as salt, and said eating spicier food could curb cravings for excess salt.

“If you add some spices to your cooking, you can cook food that tastes good without using as much salt,” Zhu said. “Yes, 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.”

Zhu and colleagues pointed out their findings may not be generalizable to populations outside of China.