Zesty is in. Check out the fact that salsa has now surpassed ketchup as the number-one U.S. condiment, according to Food Product Design magazine (December 2000). Red or green, spicy or sweet, the bold flavors of peppers are firing up our palates. Fortunately, pepper heat is a perfectly safe thrill; beyond kicking flavor up a notch, peppers provide nutritional value and some surprising health benefits.
A low-calorie, high-fiber food, chili peppers are packed with vitamins E and C—two to three times as much C as citrus fruit, depending on the type of pepper—plus beta-carotene, potassium, and folic acid. (Green and red peppers have the same vitamin lineup, but red peppers tend to have greater amounts of the nutrients.) These antioxidants make peppers an excellent addition to a cancer-prevention diet, according to Patrick Quillin, PhD, RD, CNS, director of nutrition at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and author of Beating Cancer with Nutrition (Bookworld Services, 2001).
Like other colorful fruits and vegetables, peppers are rich in bioflavonoids and carotenoids, which, Quillin says, are phytochemical pigments that help to bolster the immune system and protect DNA from cancer-causing "hits" from toxins and free radicals.
Chili peppers also contain capsaicin, the volatile alkaloid compound responsible for their heat. Research indicates that capsaicin can help lower cholesterol, boost metabolism, and even help prevent ulcers. Contrary to popular belief, spicy peppers are not harmful to ulcers, says Dave Dewitt, author of 30 books on chilies, including The Healing Powers of Peppers (Three Rivers Press, 1998). "As a matter of fact they may help, because ulcers are caused by a bacterium, and chili peppers have antibacterial properties," he says. How, then, does this potent pepper compound work such wonders? Capsaicin appears to protect against peptic ulcers by blocking the pathogen Helicobacter pylori. In a laboratory study, a dose of capsaicin completely inhibited H. pylori growth after 24 hours without harming the beneficial E. coli found naturally in the gut (FEMS Microbiology Letters, 1997, vol. 146, no. 2).
In another study, researchers compared the frequency and amount of chili peppers eaten with peptic ulcer rates. People with the lowest peptic ulcer rates ate the most chilies, leading researchers to conclude that peppers have protective properties (Digestive Diseases and Sciences, 1995, vol. 40, no. 3).
Eating spicy peppers also may help keep cholesterol levels in check. "Capsaicin improves the body's ability to process both cholesterol and fat," says Heidi Allison, author of The Chili Pepper Diet (Health Communications Inc., 2002). "It reduces the absorption of cholesterol and increases an enzyme in the liver responsible for fat metabolism."
Allison uses the chili pepper diet she designed and tested to help control her own cholesterol—and to maintain a 90-pound weight loss. "A chili-induced thermogenic burn helps you lose weight in two ways: It incinerates calories and it prevents new fat from forming," she says.
Research supports Allison's findings. In a small study conducted at the Oxford Polytechnic Institute in England, scientists found that spicy foods spiked metabolic rates by 25 percent (Human Nutrition Clinical Nutrition, 1986, vol. 40, no. 2). Eating a tongue-tingling meal also helps you eat less (The British Journal of Nutrition, 1999, vol. 82, no. 2). Researchers can't explain exactly how peppers do this, but one theory is that capsaicin stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which boosts metabolism and lessens appetite. Allison says peppers are even mood food, releasing endorphins, which make you feel happy and calm.
Slow To Burn
Ready to put some fire in your food? Chili experts say it's best to add hot peppers to your diet slowly because everyone has a different heat threshold. Allison says women tend to be more sensitive to chilies than men, but in time, anyone can build up a heat tolerance (see "Some Like It Hot").
And definitely explore your options. "Chili peppers have a wide range of flavors," Dewitt says. "We tend to think of them as having only heat, but ancho and pasilla chilies have flavors reminiscent of raisins; the habanero has a very fruity, apricotlike flavor; and chipotles [ripe red smoked jalapeños] offer a smoky overtone, which makes them good for barbecue sauces and other grilled items."
If you want to experiment with chilies in your cooking, it helps to know a few pepper precautions. You can reduce a pepper's heat by removing some or all of its veins (the white fleshy "ribs" that run the length of the pepper's interior) and seeds, where capsaicin is concentrated. You'll still receive capsaicin benefits because the compound is also present in pepper flesh. When handling chilies—anything beyond bell peppers, to be safe—wear plastic gloves to protect your hands, and be sure not to touch your eyes or other sensitive areas.
So pick a peck of peppers. They're a colorful, zesty, and healthy addition to your meals.