Chili peppers burn your butt: Making sense of "duh" discoveries

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With a title like "Red Hot Chilli Consumption Is Harmful in Patients Operated for Anal Fissure—A Randomized, Double-Blind, Controlled Study", you know you're in for a wild ride.

Yes, doctors in India really did take two groups of patients scheduled for a sphincterotomy (explanation linked, rather than described here, as a courtesy to those of you currently on lunch break) and randomly assign one group to receive 1.5 grams of dried chili powder twice a day, while the other got a placebo. And—perhaps unsurprisingly—it turned out that ingesting 3 daily grams of chili powder makes an already painful anal area even more uncomfortable.

But why—aside from some sort of perverse sadistic streak—would anyone conduct such a study? (And, more importantly, why the hell would anyone sign up to be one of the research subjects?) What seems like a pointless waste of time and money makes a lot more sense when you consider culture.

Indian food, as you may have noticed, is generally on the spicy side. Cutting peppers out of your diet in Mumbai is more of a challenge than in, say, Peoria. So, even though everybody pretty much already agreed—anecdotally—that hot peppers were a bad thing for anal-fissure patients, the researchers wanted some hard cause-and-effect proof that the relatively big lifestyle change those patients were being told to make was actually worth making. Even the amount of chili powder the subjects received was modeled to mimic the amount eaten by an average Indian at lunch and dinner.

My point: Sometimes, "stupid" studies really do have a point—one that's easy to miss if you're too tightly focused on "common sense". Besides, if it weren't for research like this, we'd all miss out on such fabulously titled graphs as "Effect of chili consumption and placebo on anal burning in the first 7 days after sphincterotomy". Small price to pay, really.

Full text of paper from the journal Digestive Surgery

(Thanks to Nat Torkington for tipping me off to the existence of this paper.)

Image courtesy Flickr user my_world_perspective, via CC

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