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.
Capsaicin, the compound that gives hot peppers their kick, is touted for its many protective properties including those that show the potential to combat inflammation, high blood pressure and clotting, high cholesterol, and free radical damage.
Recent research in cell studies has also shown that capsaicin may have potentially anti-cancer effects; however, there are still many questions to be answered and some conflicting results. Specifically, there is evidence in cell studies that supports capsaicin’s possible role in increasing cancer cell death and preventing tumor migration by interfering in its establishment of blood supply to grow and spread.
Though this research is hopeful and may pave the way for further exploration into the potential role of plants to aid in cancer treatment and prevention, these results cannot be applied to humans at this time. Research like this highlights the importance of including a wide variety of plant foods with an abundance of phytonutrients in our diet in hopes of providing the best protection against the development of cancer and other chronic diseases.
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 indicate they are rich sources of vitamins A and C, and the antioxidant lycopene. These nutrients are particularly important in supporting a healthy, robust immune system and for helping to prevent cell damage caused by free radicals.
In order from benign to blazing, some of the most widely used varieties 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 searing 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 have bruises or wrinkly skin.
Hot peppers range wildly in heat and flavor. Respect your spice tolerance to avoid ruining the enjoyment of a flavorful dish with a burnt mouth. To gauge a chili’s heat, always taste-test a tiny bit first. If it’s hotter than expected, simply use less. If you accidentally set your mouth ablaze, drink some milk to help neutralize the capsaicin. Handle all hot peppers with care, and avoid touching your eyes, nose, or other sensitive areas afterward. Soap will help to wash the water-phobic capsaicin from the skin.
Bell peppers are extremely versatile as they don’t have any heat. They can be chopped up raw for salads, roasted, sautéed, stuffed, and baked.