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Preliminary study links chili peppers, cancer

Red hot and carcinogenic.

That's what chili peppers may be, epidemiologists from Yale University and the Mexico National Institute of Public Health concluded after studying the eating habits of residents of Mexico City.

People who described themselves as heavy consumers of chili peppers were 17 times more likely to have stomach cancer than those who said they did not eat them.

Even persons who considered themselves medium pepper eaters were more than four times more likely to have stomach cancer, said Dr. Robert Dubrow, an epidemiologist at the Yale Medical School.

"To me, the most striking result of the survey was the high risk among people who rated themselves heavy pepper consumers," Dubrow said. He cautioned that since this appears to be the first time the subject ever was surveyed, the results should be considered preliminary.

Laboratory experiments with animals and cells in test tubes had indicated that a substance called "capsaicin," which is what makes hot peppers hot, is a carcinogen.

With growing popularity of salsa and Southwestern foods, Americans are eating hot peppers like never before. Per capita consumption more than doubled between 1982 and 1992, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But it's the Mexicans who take the gold medal in pepper eating. Consumption works out to about a pepper per person per day.

Dubrow said the idea to survey food habits of Mexico City residents and compare the results with incidence of stomach cancer was part of a doctoral project by former Yale graduate student Lizbeth Lopez-Carrillo, now with the Mexico National Institutes of Public Health.