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Spicy peppers may hold a key to weight loss, scientists say

April 27, 2010 |  7:30 pm

How would you like to burn calories from the comfort of your dining room? Of course you would. Researchers at the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition are a step ahead of you.

Pepper Some food scientists believe that jalapenos and other hot peppers not only “burn” the tongue when eaten but also increase the diner’s body temperature. They hypothesize that the energy required to do this burns calories just as surely as traditional forms of exercise.

One potential problem is that not everyone appreciates the flavor of spicy peppers. That kick comes courtesy of capsaicin, a chemical developed by plants to defend themselves against animals who’d want to eat them. Thankfully for timid eaters, some peppers produce a version of capsaicin called dihydrocapsiate (a.k.a. DCT) that has a mild taste.

So the UCLA researchers recruited 34 volunteers who were trying to lose weight. Some got pills containing DCT to take with their meals; others got dummy pills. The researchers measured each volunteer's energy expenditure after he or she ate and found it was highest in those volunteers who got the biggest doses of DCT – almost twice as high as in those who took the placebo. Not only that, the DCT prompted those who took it to burn more fat.

The findings are promising, but it’s not time to start swallowing DCT pills on your own, the researchers warn. The volunteers in their study were on a low-calorie liquid diet, and the results might not translate to people eating regular food. Also, it might work for people with fat to spare but not for those who are already lean.

At this point, the only advice the researchers offer is this: If you’re inclined to eat jalapenos and other hot peppers, feel free to pile them high.

The study results are being presented Tuesday evening at the Experimental Biology 2010 meeting in Anaheim.

-- Karen Kaplan

Photo: The capsaicin in hot peppers – and even a mild-tasting version in other peppers – might help the body burn calories, researchers say. Credit: Tim Boyle / Getty Images

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