Spicing up your life with frequent doses of chili could halve the risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke, research suggests.
The study of almost 23,000 Italians found that regular consumers had 40 per cent fewer fatal heart attacks and 61 percent fewer deadly strokes.
Overall, those eating the spice at least four times a week had mortality rates almost a quarter lower, the study found.
The spicy food is rich in capsaicin, a compound which has been linked to improved heart function, reduced inflammation and slowing the spread of cancer cells.
Researchers said the impact was seen regardless of other dietary habits.
First author Dr Marialaura Bonaccio, of the Institute for Research, Hospitalisation and Health Care (IRCCS) Neuromed in Molise, Italy, said: “An interesting fact is protection from mortality risk was independent of the type of diet people followed.
“In other words, someone can follow the healthy Mediterranean diet, someone else can eat less healthily, but for all of them chilli pepper has a protective effect.”
Her team tracked volunteers taking part in an Italian health project called the Moli-sani study.
Those who ate chilli at least four times a week were much less likely to die over the next eight years compared to those who rarely touched it.
The analysis published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology is the first to explore the spice in relation to death rates in a European population.
It is commonly used in Italian cuisine and has been praised for its therapeutic virtues for centuries.
Recent studies have shown it protects against cancer and diabetes, acts as a painkiller, combats obesity and boosts gut bacteria.
The study was observational – meaning it did not prove that the dietary habits led to the improved mortality rates.
Overall, around four per cent of all those in the study died during the eight years they were tracked.
Dr Ian Johnson, nutrition researcher at Quadram Institute Bioscience, said chilli eaters may just be healthier overall.
He said: “This type of relationship suggests that chillies may be just a marker for some other dietary or lifestyle factor that hasn’t been accounted for.”
Professor Licia Iacoviello, of the University of Insubria, Varese, said: “Chilli pepper is a fundamental component of our food culture. We see it hanging on Italian balconies, and even depicted in jewels.
“Over the centuries, beneficial properties of all kinds have been associated with its consumption, mostly on the basis of anecdotes or traditions, if not magic.
“It is important now that research deals with it in a serious way, providing rigour and scientific evidence.
“And now, as already observed in China and in the United States, we know that the various plants of the capsicum species, although consumed in different ways throughout the world, can exert a protective action towards our health.”