Eating spicy food regularly could reduce your risk of death, a study of over 485,000 people has suggested. The scientists who carried out the research were keen to warn their findings were purely observational, so no definitive conclusions should be drawn about the cause and effect. However, they said it shows further research should be carried out to find out why spicy food appears to lead to lower risk of death.

Published by the BMJ, researchers from the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences enrolled 487,375 participants, aged between 30 and 79, over four years. They asked them about their general health, physical measurements, consumption of spicy foods, red meat, vegetables and alcohol.

Any participants with a history of cancer, stroke and heart disease were excluded from the study. They then looked at the mortality over the next seven years, during which time there were 20,224 deaths.

Findings showed people who ate spicy food once or twice per week were at a 10% reduced risk of death compared with those who at it less than once per week. This rose to 14% among those who ate spicy foods between three and seven days per week. This association was found to be the same between men and women and was stronger in those who did not consume alcohol.

Previously, researchers have suggested spices and their bioactive ingredient capsaicin have a host of health benefits, including anti-cancer, anti-inflammation and anti-obesity properties. In the latest study, researchers said frequent consumption would linked with a lower risk of death from cancer and ischaemic heart and respiratory system diseases – more evident in women than men.

The team says that while no conclusions can be made as of yet, their findings lend to further research that could result in updated dietary recommendations and the development of "functional foods".

In an accompanying editorial, the University of Cambridge's Nita Forouhi said it is still too early to tell if spicy food could improve health and reduce mortality, but that the initial results are interesting. "The current findings should certainly stimulate dialogue, debate, and further interest in research. Should people eat spicy food? It is too early to say, but the debate and the research interest are certainly hotting up."