Fiery. Spicy. Hot. Pungent. Mild. There are countless ways to describe the flavors of hot peppers and countless ways to incorporate them into your diet. Whether you chop them for salsa, stuff them with quinoa and cheese or pickle them, there are significant health benefits to eating hot peppers.
In addition to being chock-full of vitamin D, vitamin C, potassium, fiber and beta-carotene, research has linked eating hot peppers with reduced blood pressure and cholesterol. Chiles contain red and orange pigments called carotenoids that are believed to protect against cancer.
Eating hot peppers might also help to reduce pain, according to Beth Warren, MS, RDN, CDN, founder and CEO of Beth Warren Nutrition and author of Living Real Life with Real Food (Skyhorse).
“You release endorphins [when you eat hot peppers] to block the pain from the heat, which is why they are used to help treat all kinds of arthritis pain, as well as for neuropathic pain and dermatologic conditions that have a painful itch,” Warren explains.
What’s more, hot pepper consumption has been found to decrease appetite and increase metabolism. This has led to interest in employing these taste bud sizzlers as a possible path to weight loss.
Hot peppers contain capsaicin, a compound that gives chiles their heat. While hot peppers aren’t a magic bullet for weight loss, capsaicin has been shown to boost metabolism while helping the body burn fat.
In 2015, researchers at the University of Wyoming presented study results at a meeting of the Biophysical Society. The study team had found that adding capsaicin to the diets of mice prevented weight gain and stimulated the production of brown fat, a type of fat that burns calories (technically known as thermogenesis). The group reported that “dietary capsaicin suppresses high-fat-diet-induced obesity.”
|Keeping It Sweet|
Not a fan of spicy food? You don’t have to eat hot peppers to reap the health benefits of these nutritional powerhouses.
Sweet peppers contain some of the same nutrients as their hot relatives, including vitamin A, vitamin C and beta-carotene. The low-calorie fruits—yep, peppers are fruits—can be eaten raw, stuffed or added to salads, pizzas or stir-fries.
Like their hot relatives, sweet peppers come in a variety of colors including green, yellow, orange and red. “The colors represent the different maturity levels of the pepper from the vine,” Beth Warren explains.
Green peppers are the “youngest” and mature first, followed by yellow, orange and then red. The more mature the pepper, the greater the concentration of vitamins: A green pepper is still a very healthy food but it doesn’t pack the same nutritional punch as a red pepper.
These results appear to support the findings of an earlier study conducted at the University of California, Los Angeles in 2010. In a paper presented to that year’s Experimental Biology meeting, the UCLA team reported that adding hot peppers to a meal helped burn more calories.
Some experts, though, believe you shouldn’t make hot pepper consumption your only line of defense against excess weight. “These effects are likely minimal,” says Kelly Pritchett, PhD, RDN, assistant professor of nutrition and exercise science at Central Washington University and national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Capsaicin’s Other Benefits
Besides encouraging fat burning and increased metabolism, there are other reasons to consume hot peppers and the capsaicin they contain.
In animal research, capsaicin has been shown to improve digestion. One study reported that capsaicin inhibited acid secretion and stimulated mucus in the gastric tract, helping to prevent and heal ulcers—and forever dispelling the myth that eating hot peppers causes ulcers and stomach upset.
There is even research that eating these fiery foods will help you live longer. In a 2015 BMJ study, Harvard researchers followed more than 20,000 people for seven years and found that those who ate spicy foods like fresh and dried chile peppers at least six times per week had a 14% lower risk of death from all causes than those who incorporated spicy foods into their diets less than once a week.
People who are taking prescription medication for cardiovascular problems may want to take heed when it comes to chile consumption, however. “Capsaicin is a blood thinner, so if someone is on blood thinning medication such as warfarin, they need to be careful,” Warren advises.
Heating Up the Kitchen
Of course, what makes the health benefits of chiles easy to swallow is the fact that they taste great. “Hot peppers are a nutrient-dense way to add flavor to dishes without packing on extra calories,” notes Pritchett.
Hot peppers are also versatile in the kitchen because different varieties offer different flavor profiles and heat levels. Examples include:
Ghost: Also known as Bhut Jolokia, this super-hot pepper was listed in the Guinness World Records from 2007 to 2011 as the hottest pepper in the world. The pepper, which ranges from green to orange and red, originated in India. It’s often used in fiery hot sauces and chili powder. Because of its extreme heat, eating it raw is not recommended.
Pueblo: These mild peppers originated in New Mexico. The pods grow in a pendant shape and come in green and red. Pueblo peppers are often used in fresh salsas and sauces, and are also available powdered, roasted or processed.
Serrano: A Spanish word that means “from the mountains,” these hot peppers were once grown in the mountains of Mexico. Serranos are pendant-shaped and come in green and red. These are the peppers found in “hot” salsa and other fiery Mexican cuisine.
Jalapeño: One of the more common peppers, jalapeños come from Veracruz, Mexico. These medium-heat peppers are used fresh, pickled or processed.
Habanero: These put the “hot” in hot pepper and are about 50 times hotter than jalapeños. The name, which means “from Havana,” hints at their Cuban heritage. Habaneros are popular in chili powder, hot sauces and rubbed seasonings.
|Cooking With Chiles|
To avoid turning a dash of spice into a five-alarm fire in your mouth, follow these tips whenever you cook with hot peppers.
1. Remove the seeds: To tone down the heat, Beth Warren suggests scooping out the seeds, which contain the highest concentration of capsaicin. You can cut the heat without affecting the flavor.
2. Use in moderation: Unlike bell peppers, which can be added to recipes with abandon, a few hot peppers go a long way. Chop up a single pepper for salsa or add a pinch to chili. “You can always add more peppers to increase the heat but there is no way to take them out of a dish if it’s too hot,” says Dave DeWitt.
3. Pair it up: Cook hot peppers with fat “because capsaicin is fat-soluble and will dissolve in the oil,” says Warren. Dairy also counteracts the capsaicin; if a dish is too hot, drinking milk will help tone down the heat.
4. Test the taste: DeWitt suggests sampling the flavor as you’re cooking to make sure the heat level isn’t too overwhelming. “If you know what you’re doing, you can make a really good meal but you have to keep sampling to make sure there isn’t too much heat,” he says.
5. Think outside the garden: Fresh hot peppers pack a flavorful punch but plucking them from the vine (or purchasing them in the produce aisle at the supermarket) isn’t the only way to use them. “Hot peppers can be canned, pickled or powdered,” says Warren.
Pepper heat has its own index. Called Scoville units after American chemist William Scoville, who devised the system in 1912, this measurement provides a way of judging how hot a pepper is based on its capsaicin content. Sweet bell peppers, which have no capsaicin, rate a 0. Jalapeños come in at 3,500 to 8,000 Scovilles, which sounds hot enough until one learns that ghost peppers rate a tongue-incinerating 1 million Scoville units.
If you have a favorite pepper, don’t be afraid to mix it up and try something new. “People tend to seek out the heat level that makes them the happiest and don’t experiment with other varieties,” says Dave DeWitt, food historian and co-author of The Field Guide to Peppers (Timber).
Also experiment with different ways to use chiles. If you only think of them as a salsa ingredient, for example, feel free to add them to one-skillet dishes or soups.
As long as you don’t overdo it, hot peppers make a great addition to a healthy diet. “The one thing I hear a lot is, ‘I didn’t know how delicious hot peppers could be,’” says DeWitt. “The more press hot peppers get, the more people’s initial reluctance to trying them diminishes.
You’ll quickly realize that they add an element to a dish that no other food can.”
Spicy Egg Drop Soup
“This egg drop soup, a healthy take on a classic, has great texture and flavor, but it can be spicy!” warns fitness instructor Natalie Jill, author of Natalie Jill’s 7 Day Jump Start (Da Capo). “You might want to cut down on the amount of chilies. Make it with homemade broth to elevate the flavor and nutritional profile of the soup.”
6 cups chicken broth
1 large carrot, peeled and sliced into half moons
1 clove garlic, minced
1/8 tsp fresh ginger, grated
3 Thai chilies, seeded and diced (if you want it less spicy, use fewer chilies)
3 tbsp coconut aminos
3 large eggs
2 medium green onions, diced
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
Himalayan salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Bring chicken broth to a boil in a medium-size saucepan over high heat, about 10 minutes.
2. Add the carrot, garlic, ginger, chilies, and coconut aminos. Turn heat down and simmer until flavors develop and carrot is tender, 15 minutes.
3. Whisk the eggs in a small bowl. Slowly pour the egg into the soup and stir a few times as you pour.
4. Remove from heat and add in the green onion and cilantro. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Serves 4. From Natalie Jill’s 7 Day Jump Start by Natalie Jill.
Reprinted courtesy of Da Capo Lifelong Books (dacapopress.com)