ANU research debunks spicy food myth

ANU researchers have debunked the myth that spicy foods like curries aren't more common in certain countries due to it preventing food-borne illnesses. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
ANU researchers have debunked the myth that spicy foods like curries aren't more common in certain countries due to it preventing food-borne illnesses. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

If you've ever wondered as you sat down to eat a vindaloo or a rogan josh as to why some countries tend to use more spicy ingredients, a popular belief as to why that may be has just been proven wrong.

Canberra researchers have debunked the theory that spicy food was more prevalent in cuisines of hotter countries, such as India and Thailand, as a way to stop food-borne illnesses and infections.

The thought was that people who lived in hotter environments ate spicier food as a survival method, due to them being in areas where infection rates for food-borne illnesses were higher.

Researchers previously thought it was a form of "Darwinian gastronomy" which had evolved over countless generations as a form of adaptation to the climate.

But according to professor Lindell Bromham from the Australian National University's Research School of Biology, the theory doesn't hold up.

"What we can say from our research is that it doesn't look like there's a difference in the infection risk of countries that is driving the pattern," Professor Bromham said.

"Spicier food is found in hotter countries, but our analysis provides no clear reason to believe that this is primarily a cultural adaptation to reducing infection risk."

As part of the research, Professor Bromham and her team examined more than 33,000 recipes from 70 cuisines around the world, including 93 different spices.

While the analysis revealed that while the use of spices were related to the level of risk of foodborne illnesses in a country, it also found it was associated with other health outcomes, which had nothing to do with infection risks.

The study showed spice use was even linked with rates of fatal car accidents in certain countries.

However, Professor Bromham said eating spicy foods would not mean you were more likely to crash your car or die earlier, but that there were a range of factors at play as to why spices were more widely used.

"There is a significant relationship between life expectancy and spicy food," she said. "There are many socioeconomic indicators that all scale together, and many of them also scale with spice use."

Because spiciness in cooking styles were linked to a wide range of factors, Professor Bromham said it was difficult to determine the one exact cause as to why some countries used them more.

However, she said that the study was able to rule out some explanations as to why spices were used more in some cuisines.

"Spicier foods are not explained by variation in climate, human population density or cultural diversity," she said. "Patterns of spice use don't seem to be driven by biodiversity, nor by the number of different crops grown, nor even by the number of spices growing naturally in the area."

This story Theory on spicy food just a hot take, research reveals first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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