A look at the potential health benefits that peppers may hold.
By Annie Stuart
WebMD Feature Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD
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.
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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
Capsaicin: From Pain to Pleasure
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.
Capsaicin vs. Cancer
Several studies have looked at capsaicin’s impact on cancer cells. H. Phillip Koeffler, MD, director of Hematology and Oncology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and professor of medicine at UCLA, has studied its effects on prostate and breast cancers.
How it works is not entirely understood, says Koeffler. But it appears that capsaicin may fire a lethal blow at cancer cells by affecting the activity of a protein complex called NF-kappa Beta. This makes it more difficult for cancer to dodge programmed cell death (apoptosis). In the prostate study, capsaicin caused the death of about 80% of prostate cancer cells in mice, making tumors shrink by about one-fifth the size of untreated tumors.
Similar results in mice have been found with other types of cancer, such as pancreatic cancer. And in another study, British researchers found that capsaicin disrupts the mitochondria, a cancer cell’s major energy source, killing lung and pancreatic cancer cells, but leaving healthy cells untouched.
Koeffler doesn’t recommend eating peppers to try to slow cancer growth, especially since you would need to eat about eight of the hottest peppers in the world every week to achieve a similar effect.
Keep in mind, these cancer studies are preliminary and weren’t done in people. There is no direct evidence that eating peppers prevents or slows cancer in people.
Heartburn Help — or Hindrance?
“If you are not used to hot peppers, you are going to get a tremendous amount of burning throughout your whole GI tract when you eat too much pepper,” Heber says.
Dairy protein — like the yogurt condiment that accompanies spicy Indian meals — is a good way to neutralize it, he says. And you can acclimate over time.
What if you have stomach ulcers or heartburn? “Then, I wouldn’t recommend peppers,” says Perdermo, but they may not be the cause of these problems. In fact, she says, peppers might help ward off problems like these by reducing levels of certain bacteria or by simulating protective stomach juices.
It’s more than a little ironic: The compound that gives peppers their burn — capsaicin — can actually relieve the burning from nerve pain.
Available in a cream, capsaicin can relieve neuropathy sometimes experienced by people with type 2 diabetes, says Heber. “It’s used therapeutically to reduce pain from the nerves by sending an impulse back up the nervous system that gets rid of the painful stimulus.”
Studies show that capsaicin is also effective in reducing the pain of osteoarthritis and psoriasis. Some apply capsaicin topical creams on the forehead for headaches, as well, Heber says.
Tips for Peppering Your Diet with Peppers
It’s easy to include peppers in your diet. You can grill, stuff, steam, bake, and stir-fry them. Many peppers are also delicious raw, simply chopped as a crunchy complement for dips or cottage cheese.
Tips for Peppering Your Diet with Peppers continued…
Spicy peppers are an acquired taste. “So go slow and small at first – discarding the veins and seeds, which are the hottest part of the pepper,” Perdermo says. “But keep adding peppers so your food is not so bland. Jalapeños, green chilies, red salsas — do a variety to get a mixture of phytochemicals in your diet.”
Here are a few suggestions from Perdermo for adding spicy peppers to your diet.
Chop up peppers and put in sauces and add to noodles.
Make a salsa with mild peppers and add it to tacos or rice and beans.
Add to guacamole. Start with half a jalapeño.
Toss peppers into chicken soup to give it a little kick.
Roast poblano peppers on the grill. Peel off the blackened part, removing the seeds and some of the veins. Combine with roasted tomatoes, garlic, and cilantro in a blender.
When you’re ready, move on to spicier peppers, such as serranos.
Also popular and easy are ready-to-eat hot pepper sauces. You can make these and homemade sauces a side dish to meals, not just a dip for chips, says Perdermo.
Other ideas: Add chopped bell peppers to tuna or chicken salad. Steam cored bell peppers, stuff them with rice salad, and bake. The possibilities are practically limitless.
Reviewed on October 05, 2010
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Filed Under: Health Benefits