Eating spicy foods activates the same brain areas as eating salty ones — so why not try the former instead of the latter?
Consuming too much salt is known to be bad for you. And according to a study recently covered by Medical News Today, too much sodium can significantly increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, and the mineral — which is usually derived from salt — can double the risk of heart failure.
In fact, the effect of excessive sodium is thought to be so bad for the heart that the World Health Organization (WHO) believe that we should all lower our salt intake by 30 percent if we want to avoid chronic disease. The WHO also want tobacco use lowered by the same percentage.
The American Heart Association (AHA) also caution that people should not consume more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium every day. But is simply knowing that we need to cut down on salt enough to be able to do so?
Not quite. Salt cravings are underpinned by a complex neurological process, parts of which we have only just started to identify.
Now, however, researchers think that they have found a way to "rig" this neurobiological process: eating spicy foods seems to be tricking our brain into not wanting salty foods as much.
The new study was supervised by Dr. Zhiming Zhu, a professor and director of the Department of Hypertension and Endocrinology at the Third Military Medical University in Chongqing, China.
Dr. Zhu explains the motivation for his research, saying, "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."
"We wanted to test whether this effect would also reduce salt consumption," adds Dr. Zhu.
'Spicy foods may reduce salt preference'
Dr. Zhu and team examined 606 Chinese adults as part of a "multicenter, random-order, double-blind observational and interventional study."
They analyzed the participants' preferences for spicy and salty tastes and found that those with a high preference for spicy tastes tended to consume less salt than those with a low preference for spicy food.
Also, the systolic blood pressure of those who preferred spicy tastes was lower by 8 millimeters of mercury, and the diastolic blood pressure was lower by 5 millimeters of mercury than that of participants who preferred salty tastes.
To examine the effects that spicy food would have on the brain, Dr. Zhu and team administered capsaicin to the participants and used imaging techniques to examine their brain activity.
They found that the induced spicy taste activated the same brain areas as those activated by salt: the orbitofrontal cortex and the insula.
"In conclusion," write the authors, "enjoyment of spicy foods may significantly reduce individual salt preference, daily salt intake, and blood pressure by modifying the neural processing of salty taste in the brain."
"Application of spicy flavor may be a promising behavioral intervention for reducing high salt intake and blood pressure," they conclude.
"If you add some spices to your cooking, you can cook food that tastes good without using as much salt [...] 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."
Dr. Zhiming Zhu
However, the authors also admit that the study sample was limited to the Chinese population, so future studies should aim to investigate whether or not these findings can be replicated in other populations.