By Stephen Ornes
Diet fads come and go, but in the end, there’s really only one rule for losing weight: Burn more energy than you consume. In April, scientists from California reported on a chemical that might help people burn fat. It’s called dihydrocapsiate, it comes from a pepper, and in a recent study it was shown to boost the body’s energy burn.
Its name, dihydrocapsiate (di-HI-droh-CAP-see-ate), isn’t easy to say. And Peter Piper never picked it. But it might be easy to find: It is a chemical cousin of capsaicin (kap-SAY-sin), the chemical that makes chili peppers so hot. But unlike its fiery family members, dihydrocapsiate won’t send you running for a glass of water if you eat it. In fact, you won’t even know it’s in your body.
Painful foods — like the ones that contain capsaicin — stimulate pain receptors in the mouth. Once stimulated by a fiery food, these pain receptors signal nerves, which send a message to the brain. Dihydrocapsiate, however, is too big to fit into the receptors and tickle those nerve endings, which means it enters and passes through the body without causing pain.
The main compound that gives peppers (pictured are red savina habaneros of New Mexico) their sting has a close cousin that may burn body fat without irritating the mouth or stomach.
|NSF; Chile Pepper Institute|
David Heber, a scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles reported on the dihydrocapsiate research in April during a meeting of scientists who study nutrition. He and his colleagues tested the chemical on 33 obese men and women. For four weeks, these volunteers consumed only 800 calories per day, and all of those calories came from a nutritious liquid, instead of from solid foods. These liquids did not contain any fat.
At every meal, the participants were also given pills. People in one group received pills that didn’t do anything. Drugs that don’t do anything are called placebos, and they help experimenters figure out whether the drug being tested really works. Other participants were given a small dose of dihydrocapsiate. Finally, other participants were given a high dose of dihydrocapsiate.
All of the pills looked the same, so neither the participants nor the doctors knew who had consumed placebos and who had consumed the pepper chemical.
After the end of the dihydrocapsiate-enhanced (or placebo-“enhanced”) diet, the scientists determined how much fat the participants were burning.
The scientists observed that not everyone burned the same amount of fat. People who were given high doses of dihydrocapsiate were burning more body fat than people who had been given placebos, UCLA’s Heber says. So much more, he says, that the people taking high doses of dihydrocapsiate may have been losing one more pound per month than the people taking placebos. But that’s a guess: The scientists didn’t measure that number, so they don’t know for sure.
Heber and his team think that the pepper chemical works by attaching itself to another type of receptor, this one in a person’s gut. This receptor helps send a message to the brain, which then starts a process that causes a body to burn, burn, burn calories. This process is the same that, when triggered by capsaicin, causes some people to sweat while they eat hot foods. The scientists say that capsaicin could have the same effect as the dihydrocapsiate, but capsaicin causes intense pain to a person’s mouth and gut.
Dihydrocapsiate could help people lose weight, delivering the positive effects of hot peppers without the fiery side effects. In theory, the chemical could be consumed safely and help a 100-pound person burn an extra 160 calories per day.
Of course, it would be very easy to undo these sizzling effects with one slice of cake or a sugary soft drink. A chemical like dihydrocapsiate may help a person burn more than he consumes — but it can’t change a person’s eating habits.
“As I always say,” Heber told Science News, “a supplement doesn’t make up for diet.”
This story and other Science News for Kids features describing research in medicine and biology are supported with funding from The Lasker Foundation. The foundation and its programs are dedicated to the support of biomedical research toward conquering disease, improving human health and extending life.
Raloff, Jane. 2010. “Chili pepper holds hot prospects for painfree dieting,” Science News, April 27. Available at http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/58689/title/Science_%2B_the_Public__Chili_pepper_holds_hot_prospects_for_painfree_dieting
Picked a pepper? Find out how hot it is using the Scoville scale: http://www.chilliworld.com/FactFile/Scoville_Scale.asp
Sohn, Emily. 2006. “Hot pepper, hot spider,” Science News for Kids, November 15. http://sciencenewsforkids.org/articles/20061115/Note2.asp
Sohn, Emily. 2009. “Greener diet,” Science News for Kids, February 25. http://sciencenewsforkids.org/articles/20090225/Note2.asp