The authors suggest that adding more spice to your food can provide the added health benefit of using less salt.

Mike Pomranz
November 01, 2017

Looking to cut down on salt for health reasons? Or are you already entrenched in a low-salt diet and find yourself missing that extra pop? New research suggests a somewhat devilish workaround may exist: eat more spicy food instead. Turns out opting for more spicy food can actually alter how the brain perceives salty tastes as well.

According to a study published this week in the journal Hypertension, researchers at Third Military Medical University in Chongqing, China looked at the preferences of 606 Chinese people and found that those with a high preference for spicy food also preferred their foods less salty. As a result, this group not only consumed significantly less salt per day, but they also saw the added health benefit of having lower blood pressure. In addition, imaging techniques showed that the areas of the brain stimulated by salt and spice overlapped. This phenomenon led to spicy foods also increase brain activity in the area activated by salt. The authors surmised that this cross-stimulation is likely why people who eat spicy food are more sensitive to salt and thus prefer less of it.

“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,” senior study author Zhiming Zhu, M.D., professor and director of the Department of Hypertension and Endocrinology at the Third Military Medical University, said according to the American Heart Association. “We wanted to test whether this effect would also reduce salt consumption.”

Though the authors cautioned that since this study only looked at people in China, it would require further research to see if this rule applies more broadly, Zhu also suggested that these findings may provide a framework for starting a diet that is lower in sodium. “If you add some spices to your cooking, you can cook food that tastes good without using as much salt,” he 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.”

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