Does spicy food fight infection?

The next time you tuck in to a tikka masala you might find yourself asking a burning question: are spices used in dishes to help stop infection?

It’s a question many have chewed the fat over. And now thanks to new research from the Australian National University (ANU) we have an answer.

The quick takeaway is: probably not.

Professor Lindell Bromham and her colleagues asked why hot countries across the world tend to have spicy food. This pattern has led to what some have termed 'Darwinian gastronomy' – a tummy-led cultural evolutionary process in countries with hotter climates.

To find out the answer to their question, the researchers feasted on a true smorgasbord of data, examining more than 33,000 recipes from 70 cuisines containing 93 different spices.

“The theory is that spicy foods helped people survive in hot climates where the risk of infection from food can have a big cost in terms of health and survival,” Prof. Bromham said.

“But we found that this theory doesn’t hold up.

“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 from food.”

The study instead shows that while use of spice is related to the risk of foodborne illness, it’s also associated with a wide range of health outcomes. In fact, spice use is even related to causes of death that have nothing to do with infection risk, such as fatal car accidents.

“So there is a significant relationship between life expectancy and spicy food,” Prof. Bromham said.

“But this doesn’t mean that spicy food shortens your life span or makes you crash your car. Instead, there are many socio-economic indicators that all scale together, and many of them also scale with spice use.”

Prof. Bromham said that because the spiciness of cuisines scales with many socio-economic factors, like gross domestic product per capita and life expectancy, it is difficult to tease apart the key causes.

However, the researchers could rule out some possible explanations of why some areas use more spices in their cooking.

“Spicier foods are not explained by variation in climate, human population density or cultural diversity,” she said.

“And 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.”

Whatever the key drivers for the use of spice, one thing is certain – our palettes and plates are a lot better for it!

How much spicy food do you eat at home?


I hate it when a manufacturer lists an ingredient in their product as simply "spices". I cannot tolerate chilli, but love many other spices. If they mean chilli, then they should say chilli, or whatever the spices are.


Bit late to reply but for instance - Curry can be replaced by Cumin. But Cumin can also replace Chilli. Use the powder form of Cumin.

Gives the chilli flavour and mild heat, but definitely no southern action :(

Here's a short list for you or anyone else who requires alternatives.

    Allspice (1 teaspoon): You can substitute with 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves, or 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves, and 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg.

    Apple Pie Spice (1 teaspoon): Substitute with 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/8 teaspoon ground allspice, and 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg, or 1 teaspoon cinnamon plus 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg, or 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, and 1/8 teaspoon cardamom, or 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg, 1/8 teaspoon ground allspice, and 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom.
Cloves: Substitute with allspice, cinnamon, or nutmeg.
Cumin: Substitute with chili powder.
Garlic (1 clove fresh): Substitute with 1/8 teaspoon garlic powder or 3/4 teaspoon minced garlic from a jar or 1/2 teaspoon garlic salt or 1/2 teaspoon garlic juice or 1 teaspoon garlic paste.
Ginger Root (grated fresh) (1/2 teaspoon): Substitute with 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger.
    Herbs, Dried Leaf (1 teaspoon): Substitute with 1/4 teaspoon powdered herbs.
Italian Seasoning (2 tablespoons): Substitute with 1/2 teaspoon each of basil, oregano, marjoram, rosemary, sage, and thyme.
Leeks (1/2 cup): Substitute with 1/2 cup onions, green onions, or shallots.
Onion Powder (1 teaspoon): Substitute with 1 tablespoon instant minced onions.
Oregano: Substitute with thyme, basil, or marjoram.
Parsley (1 tablespoon fresh, chopped): Substitute with 1/2 teaspoon dried parsley flakes.
Hot Pepper Flakes (1 teaspoon): Substitute with 1/2 teaspoon cayenne.
 Poultry Seasoning (1 teaspoon): Substitute with 3/4 teaspoon sage and 1/4 teaspoon ground thyme.
Pumpkin Pie Spice (1 teaspoon): Substitute with: 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/8 teaspoon ground allspice, 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg, or 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg, 1/8 teaspoon ground mace, 1/8 teaspoon ground ginger, and 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves.
Rosemary: Substitute with thyme, tarragon, or savory.
Sage: Substitute with poultry seasoning, savory, marjoram, or rosemary.
Seasoned Salt (4 teaspoons): Substitute with 2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon sage, 1/2 teaspoon parsley flakes, 1/2 teaspoon onion powder, 1/4 teaspoon marjoram, and 1/4 teaspoon paprika.
Savory: Substitute with thyme, marjoram, or sage.
Sesame Seeds (1 tablespoon): Substitute with 1 tablespoon finely chopped blanched almonds.
Table Salt (1 tablespoon): Substitute with 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt.
Tarragon: Substitute with chervil, fennel seeds, or aniseed.
Thyme: Substitute with basil, marjoram, oregano, or savory.
Turmeric (1 teaspoon): Substitute with 1 teaspoon dry mustard.


Interesting findings.

Unfortunately my taste buds love spicy food but my stomach doesn't !!!

I painfully pay for spicy indulgences.

I love a hot curry. Vindaloo is my favourite. If ever I feel a cold coming on I make a hot curry and in a couple of days the cold seems to have lifted. If a curry can make you sweat all the better.  My Aunt used to love eating green chillies straight off the bush. 


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