Eating spicy foods can make your low-salt food taste saltier

The benefits of going spicy.
The benefits of going spicy.
Image: AP Photo/Cliff Owen
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People trying to curb the amount of salt they’re eating may want to look at the humble jalapeño.

Actually, just about any spicy food will likely impact the amount of salt a person eats, according to new research published this week in Hypertension, the journal of the American Heart Association. That’s because salt and spice appear to activate brain activity in overlapping parts of the brain, enhancing sensitivity to either taste.

Researchers at the Third Military Medical University in Chongqing, China asked 606 local adults about their taste preferences, and then tested participants’ blood pressure. They found that people with a high preference for spicy foods had lower blood pressure numbers and consumed less salt, in general.

Then, the researchers used brain-imaging techniques to examine the participants’ insular and orbitofrontal cortices, both of which have been shown in previous studies to activate when a person eats something salty. They found that these same regions were also triggered by spicy foods—and that spicy foods had a compounding effect for salt in these brain areas. As a result, the study argues, spicy foods likely make people more sensitive to salt, allowing them to enjoy low-salt foods as much as they would normally enjoy salty meals.

It’s a potentially important development for people at risk of health problems related to eating too much salt, including high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke. “If you add some spices to your cooking, you can cook food that tastes good without using as much salt,” said Zhiming Zhu, a lead author on the study, in a statement. “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.”

As it stands, Americans consume far too much sodium, more than 75% of which comes from processed, prepackaged, and restaurant foods, according to the American Heart Association. For years, powerful food interests fought to maintain salt’s prevalence in our diets. But in recent years, major food manufacturing companies have bowed to increasing pressure to make commitments to reduce the sodium in their products. Mars in 2016 announced it was planning a 20% reduction in sodium across its brands by 2021. Nestlé pledged to cut sodium from its pizzas by 10%.