1903 ad in Cosmopolitan magazine proclaimed that McIlhenny’s
Tabasco Sauce “Insures Good Digestion,” adding: “Purer
and more healthful than ground pepper.”
In a 1905 edition of that magazine, an advertisement represented that the condiment “[s]timulates
the stomach and insures good digestion.”
Advertisements to that effect no longer appear, and haven’t for nearly
“I think we stopped making such claims early in the 20th century, perhaps
after the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 or some such legislation,” Shane
K. Bernard, historian/curator for the McIlhenny Company, advised.
“We definitely do not make any medical claims today about Tabasco sauce.”
Ironically, such claims, though they apparently couldn’t be substantiated
when uttered, might well be susceptible today to persuasive medical proof. Other
health benefits, not trumpeted by McIlhenny either in the past or present, might
likewise be demonstrable.
Tabasco Sauce is the juice of mashed Tabasco peppers, combined with vinegar and
salt, aged in wooden casks for three years. Those peppers, like all chilies,
are the fruit of a “capsicum” plant. “Capsaicin” is an
alkaloid in peppers—the one that causes them to be hot.
While the folks on Avery Island in Louisiana proclaim their product merely to
be a flavor enhancer, others point to health benefits seemingly bestowed by it
as the result of its capsaicin base.
Corroborating the long-abandoned claim that Tabasco Sauce aids digestion, the
Southern Illinois University website comments:
“Capsaicin...stimulates the actions of the muscles of the stomach and intestine,
which improves digestion and makes chili peppers an attractive condiment for
a food that might upset the stomach.”
A June 11, 2002 health column in Newsday—a Long Island, N.Y. newspaper—recited
this question from a reader:
“My brother-in-law is addicted to hot peppers. He loves salsa and puts
Tabasco [sauce] on everything. I can’t figure out how he avoids heartburn.
Spicy foods give me indigestion, but he maintains that hot peppers are good for
the stomach. How could that be?”
This answer was provided:
“Italian researchers wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine
(March 21) reporting that red pepper powder in capsules reduced stomach ache,
fullness and nausea by 60 percent. In comparison, a look-alike placebo reduced
these symptoms by half as much.
Cornell University, on a website providing resources for science teachers, advises:
“It was once believed that capsaicin could burn out the lining in the stomach
and cause ulcers. But this has been disproved. Studies have shown that low concentrations
of the chemical can prevent stomach ulcers in rats and in humans. Researchers
have found that capsaicin increases secretion in the stomach but does no harm.
Ironically capsaicin is now used to relieve digestive distress.”
Here’s another tribute to capsicum as a digestive aid:
“When taken internally, capsicum is a powerful stimulant producing when
swallowed in small doses, a sensation of warmth in the stomach, and a general
glow over the whole body; hence in moderation it is very useful as a condiment....Taken
in this way, it promotes digestion, and prevents flatulence.”
That comes from “Medicinal Plants” by Robert Bentley and Henry Trimen,
a book published in London in 1880.
While the McIlhenny Company might have concluded in the early 1900s that it was
simply not up to proving its health claim, it’s clear that the claim was
not without longstanding support.
According to a report by the BBC, chile peppers have been used as a digestive
aid “[s]ince ancient times.”
Other medical benefits are seen by some in the ingestion or topical application
of Tabasco Sauce.
Means of alleviating arthritis pain with substances from the pantry rather than
the medicine chest were suggested last year in the Washington Post. “Smear
Quaker Oats, French’s Mustard or Tabasco Pepper Sauce on the area,” columnist
Stefanie Weiss suggested.
She explained that the warmth of oatmeal is soothing and mustard “provides
natural warmth to the joints,” adding:
“Hot sauce contains the alkaloid capsaicin, the active ingredient in remedies
like Sloan’s Liniment and Watkins (Red) Liniment. Is it messy? Sure. But
it’s inexpensive, in your kitchen right now, and it sure beats arthritis
Joey Green, in his 2002 book “Amazing Kitchen Cures,” likewise recommended
use of Tabasco Sauce for pain, advising: “To numb the pain of sore muscles,
rub the capsaicin-laced sauce onto the skin.”
While the McIlhenny Companymakes no claim that its food-enhancer is a pain liniment,
it stands to reason that the substance would serve that function. Tabasco Sauce
is made from peppers. As discussed here last week, peppers are fruits of capsicum
plants. The alkaloid that makes hot peppers hot is capsaicin, and capsaicin is
known to kill pain.
In fairly recent years, pain killing creams have prominently featured the word “capsicum,” and
it has no doubt been widely supposed that this is some new curative. Indeed,
that was the assumption of a friend who, with enthusiasm, told me about such
preparations recently, contrasting them favorably to a potion her mother had
prepared for me 20 years earlier.
(The friend had dropped by our office one day in the early 1980s and saw I was
walking hunchbacked, like a caveman. I explained I was experiencing back trouble.
The next day, she sent over a liniment prepared by her mother from a recipe bestowed
by a Georgia pharmacist in the 1930s containing bourbon, tincture of turpentine,
and lanoline-and it worked quite well.)
The fact is that capsicum—specifically, its property capsaicin—has
long been an unglorified ingredient, listed in small type, in pain ointments.
Capsaicin, far from being a new pain killer, is an ancient remedy. Paul W. Bosland,
a professor of horticulture at New Mexico State, said in an article in 1996:
“Medicinal use of Capsicums has a long history, dating back to the Mayas
who used them to treat asthma, coughs, and sore throats. The Aztecs used chile
pungency to relieve toothaches.”
“Capsaicin is said to do many miraculous things medicinally,” the
University of New Mexico website declares. “One of the most miraculous
is probably its ability to prevent or even stop a heart attack. It increases
heart action without raising blood pressure. It also thins your blood and reduces
the risks of suffering a stroke.”
The University of Leeds (England) website says of Tabasco peppers:
“The dried fruit is a powerful local stimulant with no narcotic effect,
it is most useful in atony [tone] of the intestines and stomach. It has proved
efficacious in dilating blood vessels and thus relieving chronic congestion of
people addicted to drink. It is sometimes used as a tonic and is said to be unequalled
in warding off disease (probably due to the high vitamin C content). Some caution
should be employed, however, since large doses are extremely irritating to the
“Used externally, the fruit is a strong rubefacient stimulating the circulation,
aiding the removal of waste products and increasing the flow of nutrients to
the tissues. It is applied as a cataplasm or liniment. It has also been powdered
and placed inside socks as a traditional remedy for those prone to cold feet....
“The fruit is also antihaemorrhoidal, antirheumatic, antiseptic, carminative,
diaphoretic, digestive, sialagogue and stomachic.”
Is Tabasco Sauce useful to cold sufferers?
Some say yes. Among them is Dr. Irwin Ziment, professor emeritus of Clinical
Medicine at UCLA and former chief of medicine at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center.
For adults suffering from colds, he prescribes 10 to 20 drops of Tabasco Sauce
in water three to four times a day.
Arthur C. Gibson, a UCLA professor of biology, queries in an essay on a UCLA
website: “Did you know that a few drops of Tabasco Sauce in soda water
can temporarily dry up a cold?”
Dominion Herbal College in British Columbia, Canada (established in 1926) advises
on its website:
“In colds, relaxed throat, cold conditions of the stomach, dyspepsia, spasms,
palpitation, particularly in the acute stages, give a warm infusion of Capsicum
in small repeat doses, about two teaspoons every half hour or more frequently
The "55-Plus" column
is written especially for those over the age of 55, by a veteran California
journalist who is himself eligible for the club. Roger M. Grace has written
and edited newspapers for more than four decades, and has been a lawyer for
more than three.