Spicy food is having such a moment – or maybe a decade. I remember 20 years ago discovering the smoky, seductive chipotle pepper in New Mexico (to be clear: I didn't discover it; it already existed. I'd just never seen it) and jealously guarding the peppers and sauce I brought home with me. Now there's chipotle scattered over restaurant menus from fine dining to fast-food burgers. Ditto the sweet heat of sriracha and the fermented tang of gochujang. We're loving the hot stuff.
Over the years there have been various claims made and beliefs held about the health benefits – or otherwise – of spicy foods. That probably relates to the fact that hot spices such as cayenne pepper and chilli powder have been used as treatments for all sorts of ailments ranging from colds and flu to back pain.
The evidence on all of this is a bit mixed.
Chillies contain capsaicin, a component which gives them their heat. There's some interesting research about its potential benefits.
Capsaicin has been linked with weight loss. It might be that it suppresses the appetite, making us want to eat less, or it might offer a small fat-burning effect, although evidence is a bit mixed on this. It's unlikely chillies alone are going to help us shed kilos.
There's also been some research into capsaicin and cancer. This goes both ways. There have been some studies showing potential anti-cancer benefits of the compound, and some showing no benefit. There's also been a large meta-analysis which found that people who eat large quantities of spicy food have a greater risk for some cancers; but again this study had some limitations, and the researchers said more research is needed.
When it comes to digestion, there's some unexpected findings.
Conventional wisdom has it that hot and spicy foods cause digestive distress such as heartburn. This could be because they irritate the oesophagus. It could be, too, that for some, chillies and other hot foods cause Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) symptoms. People's tolerances are different, so test for yourself if tummy troubles are an issue for you.
What's interesting is that some research has found that over time, chilli can actually help lessen the pain of heartburn, in a kind of de-sensitisation effect. One small study found that 3 grams of chilli each day for 6 weeks temporarily improved heartburn in patients with acid reflux.
This might be because capsaicin can temporarily desensitise pain receptors, lessening the burning feeling. It's why is included in topical creams for arthritis, muscle and nerve pain.
Be careful if you're a lover of extremely hot chillies, though. In 2018 an American man became the first known case of chillies being linked to "thunderclap" headaches, after eating a California Reaper - the world's hottest chilli - in a chilli-eating competition. The chilli constricted several arteries in his brain and caused symptoms mimicking a heart attack. (He was ultimately fine).
There's other potential good news: we might live longer if we love hot and spicy dishes. A 2015 study found an association between eating spicy foods and a lower risk of death. The researchers couldn't say there weren't other factors in the diet also influencing this, but it's interesting all the same.
Niki's fact check: Apple cider vinegar (ACV) is a cure-all
I'm sure you've heard claims about apple cider vinegar's ability to treat a wide range of ailments, including warding off flu, curing toenail fungus, lowering cholesterol, aiding weight loss and even slowing cancer growth. So what's the truth?
The truth is, there hasn't been a huge amount of research into many of the claims. What there is shows mixed results. ACV won't cure cancer. But it does have some potential benefits.
For example, there's evidence to show taking ACV after a meal, especially one that's high in carbohydrate, can lower blood glucose levels. It won't cure diabetes or take the place of medication. But it could be a safe addition to meals (try it as dressing, perhaps).
There's also a bit of evidence linking ACV and weight loss. One study found adding a couple of tablespoons of ACV to the diet, while also cutting calories, can boost the amount of weight lost. Researchers suggest it might suppress the appetite.
ACV is also anti-microbial, meaning it's a useful preservative and potentially a natural disinfectant.
Overall, it's fair to say ACV is not a miracle elixir. But if you like the flavour, adding ACV to your regular, healthy diet won't do any harm, and might prove useful.