UCLA researchers have revealed results of a study showing that capsaicin causes human prostate cancer cells to commit suicide. Capsaicin is the chemical that makes hot peppers hot, so of course this is among the happiest medical news Iíve ever heard.
Apoptosis is a self-destruct sequence in which a cell breaks up its own nuclear DNA. Certain stimuli cause cells to realize (in effect) that theyíre cancerous or otherwise not needed, as certain tissues are when amphibians metamorphose; the cells either initiate DNA destruction, or remove self-destruction inhibitors. This is the process stimulated when human prostate cancer cells come into contact with capsaicin.
So I may not need to worry about prostate cancer. Even better, it seems to run in my family Ė I learned recently that, when watching their weight, my father and his boss years ago would go to their university cafeteria and eat nothing but bowls of jalapeŮos for lunch.
Iíve written about hot sauce and hot pepper in the past (for example, 1, 2, 3), partly because I can hardly enjoy a meal without pepper heat. Iíve found, after years of asking for every hot condiment at every restaurant, that powdered cayenne pepper is the most versatile and readily available way to add heat to food. Whenever I remember to do it, I grab a shaker of cayenne pepper on the way out of the house when Iím headed to a restaurant. Powdered cayenne can add lots of heat without messing up the flavor of whatever itís enhancing.
What can you do with powdered cayenne pepper? Well, what canít you do with it? I put it on chocolate, vanilla, and caramel/butterscotch desserts; peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; and other fare not usually associated with pepper heat. I might put it on just about any savory dish I come across, though pepper heat isnít for every single thing. For example, the last time I went to a fine restaurant, I put cayenne on only the entrťe and dessert of a five-course meal. As a general rule, I donít put it on salads or fresh fruit, but of course all general rules must be broken on occasion.
How much cayenne should you use? Obviously, different people have different tastes and tolerances for chemical heat in food. This is complicated by the fact that packaged cayenne pepper varies in heat level Ė some samples are over four times as hot as others (measured by concentration of capsaicin). Fortunately, some vendors and labels tell you how hot the pepper is. If the heat information isnít available, or even if it is, I always start by putting less on my food than I think Iíll need, since itís much easier to add than remove some.
If youíre not experienced with hot foods, you might wonder how hot it should feel when youíre eating it. Thereís no answer to that. Some unfortunate folks can enjoy prodigious amounts of pepper heat at the table, but it makes them uncomfortable during and after digestion. And of course philosophically, some people moralize that adding heat and other spiciness covers the flavor of delicious, subtle, natural foods. Frankly, thereís nothing wrong with that; hot pepper is perfectly good for you, and if you enjoy it, itís no one elseís business whether you slather hot pepper or even ketchup onto a $35 steak.
How much should you eat to enjoy the anti-cancer benefits? Well, the mice in the study were given so much that to duplicate the effect, youíd have to eat the equivalent of three to eight raw habaŮeros at a sitting, three times per week. This would be extreme Ė habaŮeros are 20-60 times hotter than jalapeŮos. Iíll have to hope that my practice of eating some hot pepper every day (and twice a day on weekends) is the next best thing. Research hasnít yet addressed the effects of timing and delivery on the cancer-fighting effect of capsaicin.
So, while itís premature to concentrate capsaicin in a pill and prescribe it for human prostate cancer patients, I like the new research. And hereís what else we know so far: Alcohol, dark chocolate, coffee, tobacco, salt, fat, and meat all have been shown to have their own health benefits. The only keys are moderation with regard to any single grocery item, and individual tolerance levels and medical conditions.
But heck, even if all my favorite foods and drinks didnít have health benefits, Iíd enjoy them anyway. Remember the story of the 80-year-old man who visited a doctor: The doctor said, "If you give up alcohol, tobacco, and women, youíll live to be 100." The old man replied, "What for?"