Highly Seasoned with Spices
by Jack Hoehn, February 21, 2016: Dr. Hoehn reviews recent evidence on hot spices and health. Ellen White was right on many of the practical things she taught about health habits, but not on all.
As near as I can tell, Ellen White first warned about certain harmful food “highly seasoned with spices to gratify the taste” in 1864, shortly after her revelation by vision that health was a sacred duty for Christians to keep the body temple in a fit condition for their Master’s service. It came in the context of a form of women’s liberation. She was concerned that women of her day were slaving over hot stoves, overworking in the kitchen to the neglect of time to educate their children. [a]
A modern translation would be, simplify your kitchen duties, warm something up easy to do in the microwave, and spend more time on your children’s happiness and mental development than on “food, highly seasoned with spices to gratify taste.”
Besides the overwork of women, she was also concerned with the use of dead animal flesh spiced up that “excited the animal passions.” Perhaps she meant growling and barking at each other, but one soon learns that she felt sexuality was stimulated by these spicy foods. And she finally urges mothers to improve the physical, mental, and moral health of their children by not placing on the table foods that “would injure the health of our children.” And in this context she stated a principle that has kept black pepper and most hot spices except cinnamon out of my mother’s kitchen for all her 92 years of life. “Our food should be prepared free from spices.”[b]
This principle of Seventh-day Adventist cooking in North America ruled for many years. Although as Adventism spread to other cultures, spicy foods sneaked in with converts and the missionaries exposed with pleasure to different cuisines warmed up the mouth at church group dinners, in general up to my generation good but not spicy food ruled in vegetarian Adventist kitchens.
The Adventist church once owned a now defunct vegetarian food factory in La Sierra called Loma Linda Foods. The company used to have a booth at the Los Angeles County Fair every September. They served great Vegeburgers and also a unique dish for me, vegetarian corn dogs (made from Linketts, a meatless hot dog, fried in a cornbread coating on a stick). But to be true to their Adventism, they also did not have mustard to coat these not-hot-dogs on a stick, so they made a great tasting yellow dip of mayonnaise, diced pickle, and turmeric. This was because our prophetess has specified certain spices as unhealthy, including black pepper, mince pies, mustard, cinnamon, cloves, and she recorded watching a child with a nervous disposition being fed a type of pickle called “chow-chow, fiery with mustard and pungent with spices” that she felt led to the child’s irritability.[c]
These few specifics were picked up and reprinted for 136 years in various compilations produced by denominational sources that felt that Ellen White’s good advice on diet was infallible and heaven-directed in detail, not just in concept.
The web site egwwritings.org lists the following publications that repeated these few statements in various compilations, suggesting that sexual excess, irritability, desire for caffeinated beverages, tobacco, and finally alcohol, were all promoted by “condiments” or non-food spices: Testimonies in Regards to Flesh Foods, Special Testimony for the Battle Creek Church, Christian Temperance and Bible Hygiene, Healthful Living, Counsels on Health, Testimony Studies on Diet and Food, Counsels on Diet and Foods, Selected Messages, The David Paulson Collection, The Spalding and Magan Collection, Counsels for the Church, Manuscript Releases, and the most recent re-publication of the anti-condiment advice was in 2000 in a book called Ellen White: Woman of Vision.
To be fair, the no-fiery-spices advice was not given in isolation. Adventist dietary reform aimed at an overcooked, unrefrigerated, unpasteurized food culture based on red meat, lard, butter, excess salt, rich pastries, cakes, and deficient in fruits and vegetables, unrefined grains, nuts, legumes, and hygiene. As a whole the “Health Reform Message” given through Ellen White corrected many of the ills of her age, and will correct many of the common ills of our age. But although the scientific consensus of today supports many of her specific suggestions, some are not supportable.
Seventh-day Adventists have to decide if our inspired prophetess should be listened to for good suggestions, or infallible details for living. Does our faithfulness to the visions given us depend on the details she advised, or on the principles behind her advice? Can we change and ignore the detailed advice, and still be true to the Heavenly vision?
What’s the Science Behind Health Reform?
My aunt, Hulda Hoehn-Crooks lived to 102 and was in her time famous as an Adventist icon for healthy living. There is a park named for her in Loma Linda with a bronze statue of her in hiking gear. She climbed Mt. Whitney in California so often after age 60 that a nearby peak has been named for her! She was on nighttime TV shows with Johnny Carson in her prime. I lived in her house for two years in Medical School. She worked as a researcher for her boss, Dr. Mervin Hardinge, Dean of the Loma Linda University School of Health (and brother to theologian Leslie Hardinge). And her specialty was looking for scientific information backing up Ellen White’s health advice, all of which she followed religiously and to great personal benefit, I may add.
I once asked her where the support was for no baking powder and no spices. She admitted to me that there was little or no scientific information supporting those Adventist dogmas. But, she said, they are non-nutritive substances and add little to nutrition, so she felt since they were optional they could be omitted without harm, and perhaps in the future more evidence of their harm would be forthcoming. Well that was over 40 years ago, and the evidence has been forthcoming.
Fiery Spicy Food Good or Bad?
Here is the latest. The British Medical Journal in 2015[d] published a monumental study aimed at exactly this question: “Is the regular consumption of spicy hot foods good for you or bad for you?”
The reason they wanted to ask this question is that more and more evidence has suggested that instead of being bad for you, spices and their bioactive ingredients such as capsaicin have been beneficial, not harmful. Smaller studies had suggested that people with higher consumption of spices have a lower incidence of cancer.[e] The ingestion of red pepper was thought to reduce the incidence of obesity.[f] Other studies have suggested that hot spices had beneficial effects on cardiovascular and gastrointestinal conditions, various cancers, neurogenic bladder, and skin problems![g]
So to test these interesting suggestions that hot spices may be good for you, a massive study of a very large population in China was studied. Over 500,000 individuals have been studied starting in 2004, and from this group nearly 200,000 healthy men and 288,000 healthy women ages 30-79 were stratified according to one simple question:
“DURING THE PAST MONTH, ABOUT HOW OFTEN DID YOU EAT HOT, SPICY FOODS?”
The answers could be:
- Never or almost never.
- Only occasionally.
- 1 or 2 days a week.
- 3 to 5 days a week.
Those in the last three groups were asked, “What is the main sources of spices usually used?” and could answer any of the following:
- Fresh chili pepper
- Dried chili pepper
- Chili sauce
- Chili oil
- Other spice
- I don’t know.
Then everything else was studied: age, sex, education, occupation, income, marital status, alcohol consumption, tobacco smoking, physical activity, intakes of red meat, fresh fruits, and vegetables, as well as health issues, family history, weight, height, BP, blood sugar, and medicines being taken.
SPICE GOOD OR BAD?
Then for this nearly half a million people they followed all those who died for the 9 years from the start of the survey.
So was hot pepper good for you or not?
Very good, and the more the better! In every comparable group those who had hot spicy food 6 or 7 days a week, versus those who never or less than once a week were 14% less likely to die than the fiery spice avoiders.
The only group that were NOT helped by frequent hot foods were the alcohol drinkers. Rather than alcohol providing any benefit, those who drank frequently did not see the benefit from chili pepper in their diet. Sister White was quite right on alcohol.
I guess if you believe that Sister White got the details of her health advice from the throne of God, and not from the best medical advice available to her at the time from health coaches, then you might wish to wiggle and squirm away from this evidence and all other evidence I could possibly find to counteract your conviction that a prophet is infallible and always right in detail.
You can say to me, See, this was just chili peppers, and didn’t study mustard! And it was just in adults, while Sister White was largely speaking to feeding of children. And this study just showed that you lived longer and not that those extra 14% still alive were not all irritable and controlled by passion! And you can then hunker down into your unassailable literalism. You can insist that although you would never call Ellen White infallible, she just can’t be wrong, which sounds to me like in fact you claim she is infallible.
So what I must beg of you in Jesus’ name is to not turn God’s gift to Adventists into an idol. That you return to using Ellen White as a witness to the Truth, but not the Truth herself. She can testify to us that God requires us to steward our bodies, and that includes improving how we eat, and exercise, and sleep, and drink. But the details she promoted were the best she had at the time. And our duty is not to the details, but to the principles behind the details.
We agree to live healthfully, and that means we change our opinions when the truth comes out on how to maintain our health. For some this may mean learning to encourage Adventists to like chili peppers, tabasco sauce, Sriracha Sauce, curry powder, cinnamon and extra hot sauce at the Taco Bell.
Just like we can learn to worship our God as the Creator and Intelligent Designer of life, without restricting His activity to 6 days, 6,000 years ago. Hold to the principles and themes of the prophetess, without irrationality about her understanding of the details. Thank her for what she was right on, but don’t hold her to an impossible standard for any human. As she wrote, “Only God and Heaven are infallible.”
[a] Ellen G. White, Spiritual Gifts, Volume 4a, page 131, 1864.
[b] Ellen G. White, An Appeal to Mothers, page 19, 1864.
[c] Ellen G. White, Christian Temperance and Bible Hygiene, page 61,
[d] The British Medical Journal, August 15, 2015, Consumption of spicy foods and total and cause specific mortality in a population based cohort study. BMJ 2015;351:h3942. Http://www.bmj.com/content/351/bmj.h3942
e Kaefer CM, Milner JA. The role of herbs and spices in cancer prevention. J Nutr Biochem 2008;19:347-61.
[f] Yoshioka M, St-Pierre S, Drapeau V, et al. Effects of red pepper on appetite and energy intake. Br J Nutr1999;82:115-23.
[g] Nilius B, Appendino G. Spices: the savory and beneficial science of pungency. Rev Physiol Biochem Pharmacol2013;164:1-76.
(Photo QUICKPIX–Creative Commons CCO)
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