After I gave birth to my first child in January 1984, one of the nurses in the progressive Cambridge, Mass., hospital where I had my exhausting, anaesthesia-free delivery came to give me the standard breast-feeding lesson. Lots of fluids but no alcohol. Try for serenity, rocking chair, music, she said — and no spicy foods. We don’t want to upset Baby’s stomach!
Decades later, my reaction is still a family legend. I sat bolt upright in bed and demanded: “What about the mothers in Mexico? The mothers in India? For crying out loud, what about the mothers in Szechuan province?” I had just endured the indigestion of pregnancy and the abdominal overcrowding of the third trimester. I was already fantasizing about a return to spicy foods.
So I disregarded that breast-feeding guidance with all three children. I loved them but not enough to abstain, especially during those months of interrupted sleep and hormonal emotion. I needed jalapeños, serranos, cayenne, Szechuan peppercorns and all the other condiments that give meaning to life.
Was there any evidence that nursing infants are troubled by a spicy maternal diet? I think it was just another piece of let’s-make-motherhood-as-bland-as-possible righteousness. And now, with the publication in the British Medical Journal this month of a study showing that people who eat spicy food live longer, science has caught up with my instincts. We are in that rare situation where something that adds incomparable pleasure to your life might actually be a nutritionally and medically wise thing to do. (Take that, kale.)
What is life without heat, without spice, but a cold and cheerless landscape? That was not the planet where I wanted to live — or where I wanted my children to grow up. I didn’t think I was planning a healthy regimen back then. What I was doing was craving all that is most blazingly delicious, most immediately for myself but also, of course, for those I love.
This goes back a generation: My parents first ate Indian food on a research trip to Trinidad in the 1950s, and I grew up loving it. I now have three adult children who respond to the question “Mild, medium or hot?” with an unhesitating “Very hot, please!” Whether it’s the barbecue sauce, the nuclear wings, the northern Thai salad, the vindaloo or the Ma La hot pot, we go as a family for the dishes on the menu with the three or four little red peppers next to them. We’ve attended the employee Christmas party at the Szechuan restaurant around the corner from our home, and some of the staff came to my mother’s memorial: She, too, had loved their “Dry Spicy, Tasty Diced Chicken with Ginger and Peanut,” a dish in which you can crunch the fried red peppers as if they were explosive potato chips. The waiters long ago stopped trying to discourage us from ordering the dish appropriately listed on the menu as “Tears in Eyes (Very Spicy Mung Bean Noodle).”
The BMJ study made me imagine parents — or even nutritionists — saying to children, “You need more fruits, vegetables and hot sauce in your diet.” An enormous epidemiological project that tracked the dietary habits of nearly half a million people in China, the report showed that eating spicy food was associated with a lower risk of death than not eating it, and eating spicy food more often lowered your risk even further. The risk of particular diseases (cancer, certain kinds of heart and lung disease) was lower for spicy-food-eating people, too. As with all such studies, this association doesn’t tell you cause and effect. But the researchers corrected for a wide variety of other epidemiologic factors: drinking, smoking, education, physical activity and more.
In their conclusion, they speculate as to the reasons for the results, discussing the possible effects that capsaicin, the active component of chili pepper, may have in the human body: “The beneficial roles of capsaicin have been extensively reported in relation to anti-obesity, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticancer, and antihypertensive effects, and in improving glucose homeostasis, largely in experimental or small sized population studies.” Further, they go on, spices serve a long-recognized antimicrobial function and may do good things for the balance of bacteria in the gut.
So there it is: “Eat your ‘Sichuan Spicy Ma Po Tofu with Black Beans’ or no dessert!” Still, while I’m delighted to be able to pretend I had nutritionally sound motives for a family diet rich in chili oil, the truth is that spicy food has always seemed to me one of the great joys of human existence. What really gives me satisfaction is to be able to experience this pleasure on a regular basis with the people I love most.
It’s easy to identify the preferences, habits and tastes that draw you closer to your children, that bring that proud uprush of parental love. It’s a little trickier to articulate the preferences that can leave you feeling, well, slightly estranged. I don’t mean the tensions caused by major changes in religious affiliation (can you love your little Scientologist?) or the classic parental dilemma of the child with a romantic partner you dislike. What I’m talking about is taste, both literally and figuratively: the joy of family moments built on a deep (possibly embarrassing) love for Broadway musicals, or Gilbert and Sullivan, or Wagnerian opera. Those moments when you feel, “Wow, this child is mine.”
Of course, your child may be yours, but your child is not you — they get to make their own choices. They taste with their own tongues. And parents don’t get to be righteous about the choices that happen to go our way. Children taste the world in a great variety of individual ways, and many of them take their time when it comes to any accommodation of unfamiliar foods. What’s more, familiar and reassuring flavors vary tremendously from one culture to another, which explains my well-intentioned breast-feeding coach.
What do we know about the physiology of liking spicy foods? Capsaicin triggers pain receptors on the tongue, and spicy foods are generally believed to lead to endorphin release, generating a natural high. That may account for that sense of addiction, that heat craving — but can’t you crave any food you love, and doesn’t any food you love give you a certain rush?
A taste for spicy foods may confer some evolutionary advantage, biologists have speculated, even before this new evidence. Those who like it hot accrue all those capsaicin health benefits, the argument goes, and that explains why the preference persists (though of course, you don’t hear Darwin invoked to explain why so many people have a taste for refined sugar). And there’s some evidence that taste has genetic and physiological components: Our tongues and brains aren’t all wired in quite the same way.
There’s no definitive answer on whether growing up with spicy food can affect the neurons in your tongue, but there is some evidence that a taste for spices may be acquired as far back as the womb. And there’s some research on personality type and food preference suggesting that sensation-seekers — those who crave intense stimulation — may be more likely to enjoy spicy food in adulthood. It seems clear that personal taste derives from the complex interplay of neurology and experience, memories and character. You may always love best what tastes most like home, or you may be in constant quest of adventure.
For me, spicy food is clearly part of the bond with my parents and therefore part of the taste of family life. My slightly obnoxious, slightly self-righteous delight in this peer-reviewed, epidemiological validation of a policy I pursued entirely out of gluttony and self-interest is actually a warning to me, as a parent and a pediatrician. Taking care of children is a long, complicated, often difficult daily job. It’s always tempting to look back and ascribe high-minded motives, when the truth is that you make it up as you go along, and you work out the daily pleasures and rituals that suit your own special combination of the parents you are and the children you’re dealt. A lot of what we do as parents, for good or ill, is the accidental, unplanned result of our complex family chemistries. In my family, we weren’t pushing the ma po tofu because we thought it would extend our lives; we were just passing it around because we knew it was part of what made life worth living.
And in that spirit, I offer my humble thanks to the gods of medical research and, of course, to the Szechuan restaurant around the corner.