Hot sauce—while not literally hot—can still make your mouth feel like a chemical spill zone. But despite what your brain is telling you when you consume it, spicy food can be extremely good for you in the long run.
A paper published this summer in the BMJ showed that out of a half-million Chinese adults, those who ate spicy foods three or more times per week had a 14 percent reduced risk of death compared to those who didn’t. This phenomenon is largely due to the active component capsaicin, which is responsible for a hot pepper’s burning effect. Scientists still aren’t in agreement on how exactly capsaicin works in the body, but TIME was able to speak with two leading pepper experts to get their take.
David Popovich, a self-proclaimed hot sauce lover and senior lecturer in human nutrition at Massey University, has studied the compound’s effect on cancer cells specifically. When he added capsaicin to the top of one, its cell growth would reduce. He said that one possible explanation for this is that it triggers apoptosis, in which cells undergo a controlled death in order to be recycled into new cells. In addition to its anti-cancer effects, the compound has also been shown to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
While capsaicin receives most of the credit for hot peppers’s health benefits, scientists are now finding that its interactions with other compounds are a vital part of the process. According to Popovich, hot peppers are most effective when eaten with fat. Capsaicin is a fat-soluble molecule, so pairing it with oil—as opposed to eating it with something like raw vegetables—allows the body to absorb more of it.
And don’t think you need to start eating hot peppers whole in order to receive their full benefits. José de Jesús Ornelas-Paz, a biochemist at the Research Center for Food and Development in Mexico, says that blending, cutting, and cooking hot peppers helps to release their bioactive compounds, therefore making them easier for your body to absorb. Our takeaway: If you’re looking to make the most of your peppers, consider eating them in buffalo wing sauce form.