Whether it’s a refreshing Cesar, taco night with the family, or a pot of chili, hot sauce is a staple for many households worldwide. Hot sauce is delicious and may even be good for our health, too. The active ingredient in hot sauce is a compound found in chili and red peppers called “capsaicin” (pronounced ‘cap-say-sin’) and has been shown to reduce chronic pain, improve digestive problems, and even fight cancer (1, 2). So is hot sauce bad or good for you? Let’s find out.
Some Things to Watch Out For Salt and Lead
The hot sauce’s great nutritional feature is that it has no carbohydrates, little to no sugar (depending on the brand), no fat, and no cholesterol. This means as far as diet foods go, it’s great. But it isn’t “free.” The catch is that many store-bought brands of hot sauce (including popular brands like Frank’s Red Hot) are very high in salt. Frank’s contains a whopping 190 milligrams of sodium per teaspoon (it’s recommended to stay below 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day for the average adult) (3). That’s a lot. So even if you’re only eating a little at a time, as we do with hot sauce, it would be easy to let your hot sauce push you over your sodium limit for the day.
Some hot sauces imported from Mexico examined in a recent study did contain higher lead levels than are FDA-approved for human consumption (4). This is a good reminder to ensure you check your labels and stick to brands you know and trust when you’re buying products in the grocery store.
The Good News: Capsaicin Has Several Health Benefits
Capsaicin could improve esophageal peristalsis
Esophageal peristalsis is the act of swallowing, which some people have problems with (due to age or medical conditions). In a recent human clinical study, capsaicin was found to increase sensitivity to swallowing and reduce symptoms of peristalsis problems. This suggests that capsaicin could be a good topical treatment for throat and swallowing problems (5).
Hot sauce might ease digestive problems
Anecdotal evidence (meaning individual reports of improvement, rather than scientific or clinical studies) suggests that red pepper and hot sauce may ease stomach tension and pain. Mauro Bortolotti, MD (professor of internal medicine), explained that red-pepper powder pills reduced stomach discomfort in 60% of his patients who tried the pills along with their usual diet. Capsaicin reduces substance P, a chemical our brain uses to carry pain signals, which may be responsible for this effect (6).
Another human study showed that capsaicin administration relaxed the stomach muscles and reduced pain reported by participants (7). These studies used either topical application (in the first case) or IV infusion of diluted hot sauce directly to the site (in the second study), rather than eating the hot sauce. However, it suggests that capsaicin has several effects on the human body and may retain some of these effects when consumed in the form of hot sauce and when applied topically.
Capsaicin possesses powerful anti-cancer potential
Using a static magnetic field for cancer therapy has been a popular and successful oncology treatment. A recent study using capsaicin in addition to static magnetic field cancer treatment suggested that this might boost the effectiveness of the therapy, making it even more successful (8). In cell culture models, capsaicin inhibited prostate cancer progression by targeting pathways the cancer cells use to infect other cells (9). This could reduce cancer growth and spread and poses a potential therapeutic that is still undergoing trials. In another cell model, capsaicin-induced apoptosis, which is when cells are destroyed and recycled before they are damaged beyond repair, preventing the progression of gastric cancer (10)
Capsaicin could be a useful weight management tool
A study performed on overweight women found that those consuming capsaicin supplements (along with green tea and ginger) lost more weight and lowered their BMI more than women who did not consume the supplement (11). Capsaicin (and, by extension, hot sauce) has long been suggested as a weight-loss tool. However, there is limited evidence of this (12).
Thinking about fasting to manage your weight? Better you read “Satia’s Complete Guide to Fasting.”
A capsaicin “patch” reduces chronic pain
Capsaicin can be used as a topical treatment for pain reduction because of its interactions with substance P (13). An 8% capsaicin patch called Qutenza has been tested in pilot studies as a chronic pain reliever, and researchers found it highly effective. Qutenza is now approved for use in the EU and USA to treat chronic pain (14).
Capsaicin has been shown to boost metabolic and vascular health
In studies with rats, capsaicin improved blood vessel health, boosted metabolic rate, and reduced conditions like diabetes, obesity, fatty liver disease, cardiac hypertrophy, hypertension, and stroke. Capsaicin interacts significantly with sensory neurons and cells of all types in our body, which means it has widespread health effects (15). An investigation into these effects and how capsaicin interacts with our cells is still ongoing, but the numerous effects suggest this is a substance worth looking into further.
If you are interested about vascular health, check out “14 Foods that Increase Blood Flow.”
In summary, Is Hot Sauce Bad for You?
Hot sauce is part of a healthy diet, and its active ingredient capsaicin has shown a variety of health benefits in human, cell, and animal models. Make sure you read your labels, avoid the high sodium varieties of hot sauce, and beware of lead contamination that may occur in some brands. Bad news aside, hot sauce may ease your stomach pain and offer a natural solution to many health problems. Containing no fat or carbohydrates, this is a healthy addition to your diet, and we can safely say, turning up the heat with some hot sauce may be just what the doctor ordered.