In my area, it is widely believed that the popularity of spicy cuisine in Southern countries like Mexico can be attributed to its antibacterial traits; i.e. because it is otherwise difficult to preserve food in a hot climate, they used hot spices for that.

Is there any truth to it? Couldn't it be explained simply by the fact that there is bigger spice variety available in hot countries, as opposed to e.g. Siberia? ;)

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    One could test this: prepare several containers of food with identical ingredients, preferably all prepared at once with the same utensils, and then add the normal amount of spice to half of them. Record and compare the rate at which the food decomposes. Repeat the process. Note that one might not use salt or use the same amount of salt in all cases. Salt is a well-established preservative. – horatio Jun 30 '11 at 20:00
  • Not sure if you're including wasabi in that 'spicy' definition, but wasabi has notable antibacterial properties. – user2466 Jul 1 '11 at 1:56
  • as does pepper. Which is in fact one of the reasons it became so popular during the golden age of sailing. – jwenting Jul 1 '11 at 6:21
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    @Ham and Bacon: I'd always heard the argument that spicy food makes one sweat, which cools off the body, which is good in hotter climates. – ESultanik Jul 1 '11 at 15:56
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    If you buy chocolate with Chili, it even prevents your little sister/kids from affecting your food. ;) – user unknown Jul 1 '11 at 16:16
up vote 16 down vote accepted

Of course, this would differ from spice to spice. The archetypical "hot" spice is the active ingredient in hot chili peppers: Capsaicin.

A really quick search on Google Scholar brought up this link:

Study on Antibacterial Activity of Capsaicin WEI Yu-xi, SHUAI Li, GUO Dao-sen, LI Shan, WANG Fu-li, AI Gui-hua, published in the Chinese journal "Food Science" in 2006.

Capsaicin from Capsicum annuum is one of the principle substances which have many important biological activities in food and medicine. In this paper its antibacterial activity was studied through the method of stiletto on capsaicin crystal. The results showed that capsaicin has strong antibacterial activity to bacteria supplied, but weak to mold. Furthermore, its concentration affects the antibacterial activity, and no inhibition effect is found when the concentration of capsaicin is less than 0.0125mg/ml. It indicated that capsaicin can be a good antibacterial agent as well as a pungent agent.

(My emphasis)

Killing bacteria is an important aspect in preserving foods, so indeed, if the spice contains capsaicin, it has antibacterial traits.

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    I wonder how hot is 0.0125mg/ml in Scoville units :-) – Sklivvz Jun 30 '11 at 21:46
  • You have to convert that to "parts per million" which I did using Wolfram Alpha. Then multiply "parts per million" with 16 and you get the Scoville rating, which amounts to 0.01. Not that much :) – Lagerbaer Jul 1 '11 at 1:12
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    Uups, a typo in my wolframalpha calculation underestimated the hotness. It is actually 12 Scoville. Which is more than in a bell pepper (0) but less than in a peperoncino. – Lagerbaer Jul 1 '11 at 2:19
  • This... is awesome. What a great thing to know! – erekalper Jul 1 '11 at 12:29
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    Hairy, there's quite a difference between hot chilli peppers reducing the rate of degradation due to bacterial growth and having a general panacea effect on your health. I'm glad you are healthy, and I am glad you enjoy your chilli, but calling them "superfoods" based on this evidence is a big call, especially on a skeptics site. – Oddthinking Aug 1 '11 at 20:37

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