I have yet to encounter a food more boisterous than a hot pepper. If you’ve been initiated into this most cacophonous of condiments, you likely fall into one of two categories of people: the pepper lovers and the would-be lovers. For pepper aficionados, a mind-boggling array of habaneros, scotch bonnets, chiltepins, serranos, pasillas, anchos and jalapeños exist to satiate the fussiest fire-eater. And peppers pack an impressive health punch — their benefits include pain suppression, improved circulation, antimicrobial action, anti- inflammatory action and elevated metabolism.
Not all peppers are hot. Technically, a chile pepper is defined as the pod of any species of Capsicum, and some are quite mild, such as bell peppers (also known as sweet peppers). Of the five major species, C. annuum constitutes the largest group and contains the cayenne, bell, serrano and jalapeños peppers. C. chinense boasts the hottest peppers, such as scotch bonnets and habaneros, whose marble-shaped pods range in color from unripe green to fully ripe red.
Peppers are rated according to their capsaicin (or capsaicinoid) content, using a scale developed in 1912 by a pharmacist named Scoville. For comparison, most bell peppers rate 0 to 100; jalapeños are 2,500 to 5,000; cayenne (or red pepper) and tabascos are 30,000 to 50,000; scotch bonnet and Thai peppers are 100,000 to 350,000; and habaneros are 200,000 to 577,000. Pure capsaicin rates 16,000,000. The capsaicin content is mainly a function of genetics — sweet peppers lack the gene for its production.
Capsaicin is a superb pain reliever. It works via several routes. First, it produces a burning sensation upon contact with the mouth, eyes or skin, which elicits production of pain-blocking endorphins. It also curbs pain signals to the brain by depleting a nerve transmitter known as Substance P. Third, it produces salicyclates, which are aspirin-like pain relievers. Finally, it promotes production of collagenase and prostaglandins, which reduce pain and inflammation.
Topically applied capsaicin (for example, in creams such as Heet, Zostrix and Capzasin-P) can relieve muscular aches and reduce pains from osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, rheumatism and shingles. It also can relieve post-mastectomy pain, nerve pain from diabetes and chronic lower-back pain. A paste of powdered cayenne in water applied with a cotton ball to an aching tooth (without touching the gum) can ease a toothache. Be sure to keep capsaicin cream and cayenne away from your eyes.
Improved circulation is another benefit pepper lovers enjoy. In a Thai study, hot chiles were shown experimentally to dissolve blood clots for about 30 minutes after consumption. The study postulated that frequent stimulation in this manner may continuously clear the blood of clots, thereby reducing the risk of arterial blockage.
For those who suffer from respiratory ailments, chiles and other pungent foods have a remarkable ability to expel mucus. These foods help thin phlegm and ease its expulsion from the lungs, thus helping to relieve coughs, colds and bronchitis. Capsaicin chemically resembles the drug guaifenesin, found in 75 percent of over-the-counter and prescription cough syrups, cold tablets and expectorant formulas. Hot pepper eaters are less likely to develop chronic bronchitis and emphysema, even if they smoke.
Intriguing new research indicates that Capsicum has anticancer activity. Leukemia Research reports that capsaicin inhibits the growth of chemo- therapy-resistant adult T-cell leukemia (ATL), thus providing a possible new approach to chemoprevention of ATL. In other work, scientists at Purdue University found a synergistic relationship between green tea and hot peppers in killing cancer cells. Even the humble bell pepper may protect cells from chemical mutagens (substances that can damage genes and initiate cancer development). Because bell peppers have little or no capsaicin, other constituents such as vitamin C and beta-carotene may be at work.
If you’re watching your weight, capsaicin temporarily enhances the rate at which we burn energy, especially from carbohydrates. Pepper is also a digestive aid, an application with a long history in tropical countries. A recent study from Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics found that red pepper decreases the nausea and gas symptoms of dyspepsia (indigestion).
But how about those folks — and there are many — who cannot tolerate eating hot peppers? Why not try sniffing their aroma? As a child in Trinidad, I often had to be cajoled into eating what was good for me. My mother, a cunning woman, would pluck a scotch bonnet pod from our backyard garden and cut a piece for me to hold and smell while I ate. The fragrance was so enticing it made my mouth water and made everything else taste better — and I finished my meal with no fuss. Pepper’s aroma is unique and comes not from capsaicin (which is odorless) but from a complex mix of aromatic compounds and other volatile substances, such as essential oils, alcohols, acids, ethers and phenols. Another approach is to simply toss a whole pepper pod into your pot of stew. It will enhance the fragrance and flavor of the meal without burning your tongue — just be careful not to break the pod when stirring!
Despite all of their attractions, hot chiles are not for everyone. Some individuals may be intolerant because of allergies, abdominal pains, skin irritations and rectal burning (capsaicin doesn’t break down in the digestive tract) resulting from pepper consumption. As a safety precaution, always wash your hands after handling hot peppers, or wear rubber gloves, to avoid skin or eye irritation. And if you do inadvertently munch too much of the hot stuff, drink milk — the milk protein casein washes away capsaicin. If you’d like to use peppers but want to minimize exposure to capsaicin, remove the seeds and especially the white ribs, where most of the capsaicin resides.
Many people avoid hot peppers and other spicy foods because of stomach ulcers. The evidence indicates, however, that capsaicin has an antibiotic effect against the Helicobacter pylori bacteria, which cause many ulcers. It also helps to protect the stomach and duodenal wall against bleeding from high doses of aspirin. So take heart, take a chile and enjoy!
Gina Mohammed, Ph.D., is a plant physiologist living in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada. She is the author of Catnip and Kerosene Grass: What Plants Teach Us About Life (Candlenut Books).
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