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Consuming Chilies Reduces Death From Heart Attack, Stroke and All Causes, Study Shows

Health + Wellness
Consuming Chilies Reduces Death From Heart Attack, Stroke and All Causes, Study Shows
Red chilies and onions for sale in Tropea, Italy. Researchers found that those in Italy who eat chilies regularly have a lower risk of death. maudanros / Moment / Getty Images

Could chili peppers have life-saving properties? A recent study suggests they might.


Researchers looked at the diets of nearly 23,000 adults living in the Molise region of Southern Italy over an eight year period. They found that those who ate chili peppers regularly, defined as four or more times a week, were 40 percent less likely to die from a heart attack and more than 50 percent less likely to die from a stroke, CNN reported.

The protective effect of the chili peppers extended beyond cardiovascular disease. The study found that the regular chili eaters were 23 percent less likely to die for any reason, Newsweek reported.

"The strength of the association between chili pepper and cardiovascular mortality risk is quite strong, but also the risk reduction toward total death risk is actually surprising," study authors Marialaura Bonaccio of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, Dr. Giovanni de Gaetano of Italy's I.R.C.C.S. Neuromed and Dr. Licia Iacoviello of the University of Insubria, Italy, told Newsweek in a statement.

The research, published this month in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, focused on Italy because chili peppers are a common part of the traditional Mediterranean diet, a diet dominated by fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds that relies on olive oil as its primary fat source, Newsweek explained.

Observing practitioners of this diet could therefore help scientists study the reported link between capsaicin, the ingredient that gives chilies their spice, and good health. It was also a way to verify Italian food traditions that touted the benefits of peppers, Iacoviello told CNN.

"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," Iacoviello said.

Interestingly, the researchers found that participants who ate chilies were less likely to die even if they did not follow the rest of the Mediterranean diet, which is generally considered healthy.

"[S]omeone can follow the healthy Mediterranean diet, someone else can eat less healthily, but for all of them chili pepper has a protective effect," Bonaccio told CNN.

That might make you want to go out and buy some chilies, but the study authors cautioned against that line of thinking.

"Diets should not be treated as drugs," the authors told Newsweek. "We should not talk in terms of amounts per day, as if we were dealing with drugs, rather our effort should be addressed to promote a global healthy lifestyle, starting from diet."

They said that those who already eat chili peppers regularly should of course continue to do so, but anyone who does not like peppers should simply follow a healthy diet overall.

Because it was an observational study, the research also cannot prove that chilies were in fact responsible for the lower mortality risk.

"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 but, to be fair, this kind of uncertainty is usually present in epidemiological studies, and the authors do acknowledge this," Ian Johnson, a nutrition researcher at Quadram Institute Bioscience in England who was not involved in the study, told CNN.

Duane Mellor, a dietitian at the UK's Aston Medical School who was also not involved in the study, said it was possible people who ate chilies were more likely to add herbs and spices to their cooking, and therefore more likely to eat healthy foods like vegetables generally.

The researchers now plan to investigate whether there are any biological reasons why chilies might be good for your health.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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