Spicy research: peppers may help burn calories

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Peppers are having a big week. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Center for Human Nutrition say that preliminary findings from a small study suggest that the chemical that gives spicy peppers their kick, capsaicin, may not only make you sweat when digging in to a hot dish, but may actually prompt your body to expend more energy—and that there may be a way to get this benefit without the burn. And in separate research, the BBC reports, investigators at the University of Texas indicate that a better understanding of capsaicin could yield clues to how the body processes pain, and as a result, how to better manage discomfort in chronic sufferers.

The study into peppers’ impact on energy consumption, presented this week at an Experimental Biology conference in California, included 34 men and women. Participants ate a low-calorie liquid “replacement meal” diet for about a month, and then were either assigned to the control group—which was given pills containing a “non-burning” version of capsaicin produced by some varieties of peppers that is known as dihydrocapsiate (DCT) in two different amounts—or to a placebo group. Researchers tested all participants’ weight and body fat content, and also measured how quickly they were burning energy after eating a single test meal. They found that participants taking either dose of DCT were burning energy at a higher rate than those in the placebo group, and that those taking the highest dose of DCT were burning energy at roughly twice the rate of those taking a placebo. What’s more, the researchers noted that people taking the pepper pills, so to speak, were specifically burning fat at a higher rate than those taking the placebo.

Though preliminary, the researchers suggest that these findings indicate that DCT, like capsaicin, may prompt the body to ramp up how quickly it burns energy, and could help boost metabolism. While they concede that more research is needed and these results are limited to one analysis after a single meal and could differ with further investigation or in a different study population, they say that the initial findings are promising—especially for people with a penchant for peppers.

Meanwhile, findings from the University of Texas highlighted by the BBC indicate that peppers may also play a role in helping scientists better understand how the body processes pain. Research published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation indicates that a substance similar to capsaicin is found at sites of pain in the body, and that blocking the production of this chemical could be a way to relieve chronic discomfort.