There's probably no food quite as baffling as the chili pepper.

A bite of a habanero, jalapeno or cayenne can pack such an ouch that all logic says they should repel those who attempt to consume them. Yet for centuries humans have not only eaten such spicy foods -- but enjoyed them. In recent years, worldwide consumption of hot spices has grown dramatically, fueled by the popularity of Mexican salsas, Thai and Indian curries and the like.

Scientists seeking to better understand the alluring properties of hot foods have found evidence that we may be so drawn to them because they are good for us. While the research is still preliminary, it suggests spicy food may have all kinds of health benefits, ranging from boosting metabolism and preventing gastric damage to reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer.

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EAT SPICES, LIVE LONGER?

The newest study, published recently in The BMJ, finds a link between regular consumption of spicy foods and a lower risk of death.

As far as these types of epidemiological studies go, this one is huge. It's based on dietary data of nearly 500,000 people from China, the birthplace of all manner of spicy foods, from chicken stir-fried in mounds of red peppers to mouth-numbing dumplings bathed in a red oil.

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The participants, who were enrolled in 2004-2008 and followed for a mean of 7.2 years, were asked to fill out a questionnaire that included general questions about their health and diet, including how often they ate spicy foods. Out of 487,375 participants, 20,224 died during the study period.

After controlling for age, gender, level of education, marital status, alcohol consumption, smoking, health history, and other variables, the researchers found an inverse relationship between eating spicy foods and risk of death. Those who ate spicy foods 1-2 times a week had a 10 percent lower risk of death than those who rarely or never ate them, and those who ate them 3-7 times a week had a 14 percent lower risk of death.

The link was similar for both men and women. Frequent consumption of spicy foods was also linked to a lower risk of death from specific conditions: cancer, ischemic heart and respiratory system diseases. (Spicy foods may be contraindicated in diets of those suffering from heartburn and other intestinal diseases, so check with your doctor before consuming them. )

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GO FOR FRESH SPICES

Authors Jun Lv, a professor in the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at Peking University; Lu Qi, an associate professor at Harvard's School of Public Health; and their co-authors also wrote that their data shows that the associations they found for those diseases seem to be stronger for those who consumed fresh chili pepper than those who consumed dried chili, sauce or oil.

The researchers said that, while it isn't possible to draw any conclusions from their work about whether eating spicy foods causes you to live longer, more studies are needed to look at this link in more depth. If their findings are confirmed, they said, it could lead to updated dietary recommendations and development of herbal supplements.

"Spices have been an integral part of culinary cultures around the world and have a long history of use for flavoring, coloring and medicinal purposes . . . however, the evidence relating daily consumption of spicy foods and total and disease-specific mortality from population studies is lacking," they wrote.

Lv, Qi and the other researchers suggested that capsaicin, the molecule responsible for the hot sensation in spicy foods by binding to the pain receptors in the tongue, making them feel like they are burning, may be the reason behind the link between chili peppers and longevity.

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"The beneficial roles of capsaicin have been extensively reported in relation to anti-obesity, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and antihypertensive effects," they wrote. They also noted that spices have been shown to have an antimicrobial function that may impact the bacteria that live in your gut in such a way that it helps increase longevity.