What about the noteworthy antioxidant that gives spicy peppers their zing? You know, that tear-jerking, sweat-inducing, fiery blast of heat?
That’s capsaicin. It’s a flavorless, odorless, colorless compound found in varying amounts in peppers. Fiery habaneros contain the most. Jalapeños have some. Bell peppers have none.
“The more capsaicin, the hotter the pepper, and the higher the antioxidant level,” says Malena Perdermo, MS, RD, CDE, affiliate professor of nutrition in the health professions department at the Metropolitan State College of Denver. “Red chilies are usually hotter, but even the green ones have capsaicin. You can’t always go by the color to determine how hot it is,” says Perdermo, who is also the American Dietetic Association’s Latino Nutrition spokesperson.
Capsaicin was likely an adaptation by peppers to keep animals from eating them, says Heber. Unfortunately, peppers are standoffish with humans as well, hitting pain receptors on the tongue’s nerve cells, which sends a message to the brain. But with constant exposure, these cells can become desensitized.
“Once a person gets used to a chili pepper on the tongue,” says Heber, “it actually becomes pleasant. Hot peppers release endorphins, the pleasure hormone.” How that happens isn’t clear. But people in ancient Aztec and Mayan societies, Heber says, even considered chili peppers an aphrodisiac.
Capsaicin’s Potential Health Benefits
Because of the complex mixtures of phytochemicals in peppers and other plants, it is not easy to confirm their individual health benefits. Many genetic and lifestyle factors affect a person’s health.
However, capsaicin has captured the interest of many researchers and is beginning to unveil a few of its secrets. Here’s a sample of what the research shows.
Weight loss benefits without the burn? The capsaicin in peppers has been shown to slightly curb appetite — at least briefly, says Heber. And peppers can raise body temperature. That warming effect may have another benefit that may help with weight loss.
Heber and his UCLA colleagues recently turned to peppers while trying to help obese patients on an 800 calorie-a-day diet. “When you’re on a low-calorie diet, your metabolic rate goes down about 10% to 15% and exercise will not raise it,” says Heber. “We wanted to see if chili peppers could increase metabolism in cases like these.”
Heber’s team used a synthetic form of dihydrocapsiate (DCT), a compound similar to capsaicin but not spicy. Obese patients taking the DCT supplement burned, on average, an extra 80 calories a day – twice that of those taking a placebo.
It’s a modest effect, similar to that of green tea or caffeine, says Heber, but adding peppers to your diet can’t hurt your weight loss efforts. And, although he says he doesn’t want to “oversell it,” Heber says this metabolic boost might help over time, especially when combined with peppers’ proven ability to dampen appetite during meals.
Of course, capsaicin is not a weight loss wonder. It doesn’t change the other cornerstones of weight loss: a healthy diet and physical activity plan and a calorie budget in which calories burned exceed calories consumed.
Peppers — hot or not — may do more than round out your omelet, spice up your salsa, and make for a colorful stir-fry. They help you get some of your daily vitamins and contain compounds that may be linked to weight loss, pain reduction, and other benefits.
Peppers, by the way, are fruits, not vegetables. They have been popular for a long time, including with the ancient Aztecs. And now they’re getting new attention from researchers eager to unlock their potential health benefits.
Here’s what nutrition and health experts say about these tropical plants from the nightshade family.
Phytochemicals in Peppers
Whether spicy or sweet, peppers contain many phytochemicals, which are naturally occurring compounds found in plants.
“Close to a million have been identified in nature,” says David Heber, MD, PhD, professor of medicine and public health and chief and founding director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the Division of Clinical Nutrition at UCLA. He is also author of several nutrition books, including What Color Is Your Diet?
Many of peppers’ phytochemicals have antioxidant abilities. This means they can help neutralize free radicals in the body, which damage cells. So they may help prevent or reduce symptoms of certain diseases. Similar to hormones, some phytochemicals also act as messengers in the body, Heber says.
Peppers come in a rainbow of colors, including green, red, yellow, orange, and even purple, brown, and black.
“Each color of pepper is associated with a different family of phytochemicals,” Heber says. But there’s a lot of overlap in nature. “So it’s not like you need to have a certain type of chili pepper, or you’re going to die.” The problem occurs when you don’t eat enough variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, spices, and herbs, he says.
Peppers’ Top Performers
Whether mild or fiery, peppers are nutrient-dense. They’re one of the richest sources of vitamins A and C. Just a cup a day can provide more than 100% of your daily needs.
Go for a variety of colors in peppers to get the biggest bang for your buck. Red bell peppers are a good source of fiber, folate, vitamin K, and the minerals molybdenum and manganese. And, they’re especially rich in nutrients and phytochemicals such as:
- Vitamin A, which may help preserve eyesight, and fend off infections
- Vitamin C, which may lower cancer risk and protect against cataracts
- Vitamin B6, which is vital for essential chemical reactions throughout the body, including those involving brain and immune function
- Lutein and zeaxanthin, which may slow the development of eye diseases, such as cataracts or macular degeneration
- Beta-carotene, which may help protect against certain types of cancer, such as breast cancer in women before menopause
- Lycopene, which may decrease the risk for ovarian cancer
David Heber, MD, PhD, professor of medicine and public health; chief and founding director, Center for Human Nutrition, Division of Clinical Nutrition, UCLA; author of What Color Is Your Diet?
World’s Healthiest Foods: “Bell Peppers,” “Green, Yellow and Red Bell Peppers – What’s the Difference?” “Vitamin A.” “Vitamin C.”
Linus Pauling Institute: “Carotenoids.”
Wittenburg University: “Some Like It Hot.”
Mori, A. Cancer Research, March 15, 2006; vol 66: pp 3222.
Mason, L. BMJ,April 24, 2004; vol 328: p 991.
Stuart, Annie. “Peppers and Your Health.” Reviewed by Martin, Laura. Reviewed on October 05, 2010. Retrieved on October 27, 2013 on www.webmd.com.
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