By Chelsea Fisher
Your eyes may tear up after eating a jalapeño, but the health benefits of peppers — in varieties ranging from the sweet to the searing — are nothing to cry about. According to the cancer journal Oncogene, studies have found that capsaicin, the ingredient that gives hot peppers their kick, can inhibit prostate, gastric, hepatic, and leukemic cancer cell growth while leaving normal cell tissues unharmed. A few recent studies have shown that the fire-flavored compound can also block breast-cancer cell migration.
Peppers are handy at neutralizing free radicals, and the hot ones may help liven up more than your menu. Capsaicin is used as holistic treatment for weight loss, high cholesterol, high-glucose levels, pain relief, and immune-system enhancement.
For the tamer-tongued among us, mild bell peppers can provide health benefits without the heat. Sweet green, red, yellow, and orange peppers lack capsaicin, but their bright colors reveal the good stuff inside, such as vitamins A and C, and lycopene.
Some of the most widely used varieties, in order from benign to blazing, are: bell, cherry, Anaheim, jalapeño, serrano, cayenne, Tabasco, Thai, rococo, habanero, and ghost. The Scoville scale, developed by pharmacist Wilbur Scoville in 1912, rates peppers on their piquancy. Bell peppers clock in at zero “heat units,” jalapeños range from 2,500 to 8,000, and ghost peppers top out at a blazing 1,463,700. Now that’s hot.
When buying any pepper, make sure it is firm all around, without any soft spots. Avoid peppers that that have bruises or wrinkly skin. Bell peppers are on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list of pesticide-affected foods, so buy organic if possible.
Hot peppers range wildly in heat and flavor. Make sure you know your spice tolerance to avoid turning a nice dish into a five-alarm flavor-fire. To gauge a chili’s heat, always taste-test a tiny bit first. If you find it’s too hot for you, simply use less. If you accidentally set your mouth ablaze, drink some milk. Handle all hot peppers with care and avoid touching your eyes, nose, or other sensitive areas afterward.
Bell peppers are extremely versatile. They can be chopped and added to many dishes or easily roasted under the broiler or over the flame on a gas stove. Cut large peppers in half and stuff them with rice for an easy and fresh main dish, or slice them into stir-fries. They are delicious in our Potato and Pepper Stew.
Hot peppers can be used to spice up almost anything. Homemade salsas and hot sauces are a fun way to make meals unique and colorful. Ever-versatile red pepper flakes can add a slight kick almost anywhere you need it; add them to the oil at the start of a recipe. For a quick, spicy pasta “aglio e olio” sauce, add red pepper flakes to sliced garlic and fry in olive oil over a medium flame until the garlic is just golden. Toss with al dente whole-wheat spaghetti and chopped parsley.